Crossing the Rubicon: The Dynamics of Restraint in Civil War


Project Leader

Project Period

  • 2021-2023

Project Participants


In recent times, more than half of all people killed in civil wars died in Afghanistan or Syria. This raises a question to which we have surprisingly few answers so far: Why do some civil wars become so much more severe than others?

This project has set out to find answers to this important question, with a focus on the sources of restraint in civil war. Deepening knowledge on restraint in war is crucial for building resilient societies and contain existing civil wars.

We depart from previous research in two important ways. First, previous research has primarily focused on factors that drive the death toll upwards, while our understanding of the factors that restrain escalation and depress the body count remains narrow. We emphasize both causes of escalation and restraint and explore how actor characteristics, institutions, and norms restrain actors’ use of violence.

Second, earlier scholarship tends to compare the most severe civil wars to all others. In contrast, we break new ground by identifying civil wars that saw low severity despite a high risk of escalation. Comparing these cases to more severe civil wars will yield new insights on the sources of restraint in civil war.

We employ multiple approaches to find answers to the question of why some civil wars become much more deadly than others. This includes field research in Darfur (Sudan) and Côte d’Ivoire; a comparison of these cases; a Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) of a set of cases considered to be at a high risk for conflict escalation, as well as global statistical analyses of civil war severity.

RElated publications 

  • van Baalen, S. (2021). “Local Elites, Civil Resistance, and the Responsiveness of Rebel Governance in Côte d’Ivoire”, Journal of Peace Research, Online first.
  • van Baalen, S. (2020). Guns and Governance: Local Elites and Rebel Governance in Côte d’Ivoire. PhD Dissertation. Uppsala: Uppsala University.
  • Bara, C. (2014). “Incentives and Opportunities: A Complexity-Oriented Explanation of Violent Ethnic Conflict”, Journal of Peace Research 51(6): 696-710.
  • Bara, C. (2018). “Legacies of Violence: Conflict-Specific Capital and the Postconflict Diffusion of Civil War”, Journal of Conflict Resolution 62(9): 1991-2016.
  • Bara, C. (2020a). “Shifting Targets: The Effect of Peacekeeping on Postwar Violence”, European Journal of International Relations, Online first.
  • Bara, C. (2020b). “Forecasting Civil War and Political Violence”. In: U. Jasper, M. Dunn Cavelty & A. Wenger (eds). The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Prediction: Academic Contributions to Future-Oriented Policy-Making. Routledge.
  • Brosché, Johan, Hanne Fjelde, Kristine Höglund. 2020. “Electoral Violence and the Legacy of Authoritarian Rule in Kenya and Zambia” Journal of Peace Research 57 (1): 111-125.
  • Brosché, Johan and Allard Duursma. 2018. “Hurdles to Peace: a level-of-analysis approach to resolving Sudan’s civil wars” Third World Quarterly 39 (3):560-576.
  • Brosché, Johan and Kristine Höglund. 2015. “The Diversity of Peace and Conflict in Africa” in SIPRI Yearbook 2015 Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Brosché, Johan. 2014. Masters of war: The role of elite's in Sudan's communal conflicts. Uppsala Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.
  • Brosché, Johan & Daniel Rothbart. 2013. Violent conflict and peacebuilding: The continuing crises in Darfur. London and New York: Routledge.


The Swedish Research Council (U-forsk)

Last modified: 2021-02-23