While most wars in history are a contest between two factions, states, or ideologies, there have been a handful of conflicts that involved more than just two competing sides. In a few rare cases, history records wars with three distinct and opposing groups, each battling the other two. Here are some of these three-sides wars from the past hundred years.
Twenty years ago this summer, the world’s attention was fixed on mounting violence in the former Yugoslavian republic of Bosnian Herzegovina. The conflict, which erupted in 1992 and continued for another three years, was a by-product of the messy 1991 post-Cold War breakup of the wider Yugoslavia, a federation comprised of Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and Bosnia Herzegovina. The Bosnian War, which would claim close to 100,000 lives, would draw in forces from the Croatian Republic and the Republic of Serbia, volunteers from throughout the Muslim world, as well as a sizable contingent of the United Nations and later NATO. Yet at its core the, the Bosnian War was actually a three-way contest between ethnic Serbians and Croats and Bosnian Muslims, with each faction at certain times fighting the other two. The war would continue until the Dayton Accord, brokered by the Clinton Administration, divided up the country between two roughly equal ethnic Bosnian and Croat regions and a tiny Serb zone.
The Confusing Lebanese Civil War
The war in Bosnia was just gearing up while the dead were still being counted from another three-way war that had attracted the eyes of the world for the previous 16 years. The conflict in Lebanon, which ran from 1975 to 1990, was also the result of inter-ethnic tensions, this time between Lebanese Christians, the Lebanese Nationalist Movement — a socialist faction with ties to the PLO, and the Lebanese government. It originally began as a series of attacks and counter attacks between right-wing Christian militias in Beirut and leftist Muslims. Eventually the conflict would widen and see dozens of militias and factions including Armenians, Kurds, Sunnis and Shias join the fight against both the Christian factions and their allies the Southern Lebanese Army on one side and and the Lebanese national government on the other. The conflict would also draw in Israel, the PLO, Syria, an Arab intervention force, the UN and a U.S.-led multinational force comprised of Americans, British, French and Italians.
From 1927 to 1949, China was ravaged by a long and bloody civil war. On the one side was the Kuomintang nationalist forces led by Chaing Kai-shek. On the other side were the communists under the command of Mao Zedong. Japan’s attempt to assert dominance over the fragmented added a new dimension to the conflict. After conquering Manchuria in northern China in 1931, Japan would go onto to launch a full-scale invasion into the heart of China later in the decade. This new and potent threat forced the two warring Chinese factions to ally for a time to meet the common enemy. But any cooperation proved to be short lived – while attacks on one another other had tapered off, neither the communists nor the nationalist had much appetite for actually working with each other. By 1940, fighting once again erupted between the suspicious allies. Clashes between the two were heaviest in regions of the country not occupied by the Japanese. Meanwhile, both sides continued to strike at the Japanese when the opportunity presented itself. While the communists tended to favour hit-and-run style guerrilla tactics within Japanese-occupied territory, the nationalists relied on a more conventional strategy of open confrontation. Unable to strike at the elusive communists, the Japanese focused their rage on the nationalists, greatly weakening them in the process. By 1945, Japan’s wider war in the Pacific began to falter. The Soviets declared war on the empire and invaded Manchuria to destroy the remnants of the Japanese army. In the process, the Red Army occupied northern China, plundering the nation’s industrial base and shipping much of the manufacturing capacity of the region back to the U.S.S.R. After Russia withdrew, the Chinese civil war resumed with full intensity. However, within three years, the nationalists were on the ropes. By 1949, they had retreated to Taiwan, leaving all of the China in the hands of the communists.
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