I was playing StarCraft the other night, and it occurred to me: that game series portrays effectively a 3-way war, where all three factions are fighting the other two with equal ferocity.

Obviously, in real life various factions tend to make alliances in order to fight shared enemies, even if they aren't natural allies on their own, like the Soviets and the Western Allies in WWII allying to fight the Axis.

So I was wondering: what's the biggest, longest conflict in real history that truly had more than 2 sides? I'm sure there have been skirmishes between city-states or factions within a civil war where a whole bunch of groups were all fighting amongst themselves, but has there ever been a large-scale, protracted conflict that remained equally fierce amongst multiple powers/alliances, all fighting each other?

  • 16
    how about the two sides of the Chinese Civil War plus Japan?
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 2:17
  • 4
    @LouisRhys: Not a bad example.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 2:22
  • 3
    I'm only vaguely aware of how the Chinese Civil War progressed. How long were all three factions solidly in the fight, and did they all stay un-allied and hostile to each other the whole time?
    – Nerrolken
    Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 2:27
  • 2
    @AlexanderWinn please take a look at my answer
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 5:57
  • 6
    Syria today is close. Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 22:57

16 Answers 16


There have been at least a few wars with more than two opposing factions.

Algerian War:


  • Algerians aligned with one of two liberation movements ("National Liberation Front"; "Algerian National Movement")

  • French government forces

  • Two irregular forces ("French Algerian Front"; "Organization of the Secret Army")

Northern Ireland's Troubles:


  • British forces (British military; Northern Irish police force, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC; Auxiliary police force known as the "B Specials")

    • The British army actually entered the conflict as intermediaries between the Catholic population and the RUC, but they soon sided with the RUC and began to treat the Catholics as the enemy.
  • Irish forces (Irish military, known as the Irish Defense Force; Irish police force, known as the Garda)

    • Played a smaller role in the conflict, nominally on the same side as the British, but not with much enthusiasm
  • Republican/Nationalist forces (Irish Republican Army/IRA; Official IRA; Provisional IRA; Continuity IRA; Real IRA; Irish National Liberation Army, and others)

  • Unionist/Loyalist forces (Ulster Defense Army/UDA; Ulster Volunteer Force/UVF; Shankill Butchers; and others)

    • The Unionists/Loyalists were usually on the same side as the British, but occasionally fought against them, and in any case, they were at least supposed to be treated as terrorists by the British, although this didn't always happen in practice.

Irish Confederate Wars:


  • Irish Catholic Confederation

  • Parliamentarians

  • English and Scottish Royalists

War of the Three Kingdoms:


  • English, Scottish and Irish Royalists

  • Scottish Covenanters

  • Irish Confederates

  • Irish Protestants

  • English Parliamentarians

World War II in Yugoslavia:


  • Axis powers

  • Yugoslavia and the Chetniks

  • Partisans and Allied powers

Iraq War:


  • Coalition forces

  • Iraqi military

  • Sunni insurgents

  • Shiite insurgents

  • Kurds

Syrian Civil War (ongoing):


  • Government coalition forces (Syrian military, Iran, Hezbollah, and many others)

  • Opposition forces, Salafists, and allied militias

  • ISIL and allied militias

  • Rojava, Kurds, Joint Task Force (including the U.S.), and allied militias

Chinese Civil War/Second Sino-Japanese War:


  • Japanese forces

  • Chinese Communist forces

  • Chinese Nationalist forces

Russian Civil War:


  • Whites

  • Reds

  • Greens

  • Anarchists

  • Independence movement forces

Three Kingdoms Period:


  • Wu Kingdom

  • Wei Kingdom

  • Shu Kingdom

Warring States Period:


  • Qin

  • The Three Jins (Han, Wei, and Zao)

  • Qi

  • Chu

  • Yan

  • Yue

  • Sichuan

  • Central plains (now known as Hunan)

  • Zhongshan

Three Crowned Kings Period:


  • Chola

  • Chera

  • Pandya

Bosnian War:


  • Ethnic Serbs

  • Croats

  • Bosnian Muslims

Lebanese Civil War:


  • Israel, Lebanese Front, South Lebanon Army, Tigers Militia, and Marada Brigades

  • Lebanese National Movement, Hezbollah, Iran, Amal Movement, IRGC, and Islamic Unification Movement

  • Lebanese Armed Forces, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Multinational Force in Lebanon, United States, France, Arab Deterrent Force, Syria

  • Armenian Revolutionary Federation and Kurds

Spanish Civil War:

  • Fascists

  • Republicans

  • Anarchists

Wars of the Diadochi, or the Wars of Alexander's Successors:


  • The Seleucid Empire

  • Macedon

  • Thrace

  • Ptolemaic Egypt

  • 5
    this answer deserves more up votes :)
    – Ziezi
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 9:56
  • 2
    @SQB - no, ISIL = Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. That includes Syria. "The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, IPA /ˈaɪsᵻl/), alternatively translated as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_State_of_Iraq_and_the_Levant
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 20:49
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    Then we need to educate a number of journalists.
    – SQB
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 21:20
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    I don't believe that the Algerian and Northern Ireland circumstances that you quote were actually "three-party wars". In numerous post-colonial situations French and more frequently British forces stood between two warring factions, essentially vying to occupy the vacuum being vacated by Britain. British soldiers stood between Moslems and Hindus in India, between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, Communists and Nationalists in Malaya, and then Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. And that is to name but five situations.
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 30, 2016 at 8:05
  • 4
    Spanish civil war doesn't also comply as a three sided war. Some conflicts within the republican zone have been termed as "civil wars within the civil war", but there were clearly two sides with clearly minor conflicts within one side. The same could be said of the North Ireland conflict and the Algerian independence war.
    – Pere
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 18:20

For a relatively brief period in China's Three Kingdoms era, the three states of Wu/Shu/Wei were actively fighting each other. For most of the rest of the time, Wu and Shu were allied in their resistance against the vastly stronger Wei.

  • In 219 (AD), the ill-fated Battle of Fancheng took place. Shu, fresh from their acquisition of Hanzhong, invaded Wei, but this campaign soon reached a stalemate.
  • In the same year, sensing an opportunity, Wu successfully invaded Jing province, then under the control of Shu.
  • In 221, wishing revenge and to retake the key province, Shu attempted to retake Jing province. This campaign lasted a full year until Shu were defeated in the Battle of Xiaoting.
  • In 223, Shu and Wu reaffirmed their alliance.

So for a period of approx. 4 years, between the invasion of Jing province by Wu and the reaffirmation of their alliance, the three states of Wu, Shu and Wei could be said to have been at war with each other.

In terms of scale (keep in mind the numbers are inexact and may be unreliable due to the age):

  • Battle of Fancheng involved 100k troops for Wei and 70k for Shu
  • Battle of Xiaoting involved 50k for Wu and Shu suffered 80k casualties
  • For reference, census results from the previous and following dynasties show the total population of China to be somewhere between 16 - 50 million.
  • wow...that's an enormous amount of population for the time. Not totally unrealistic though.
    – Matthaeus
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 17:37
  • @Matthaeus tbh those numbers are a bit high. At Fancheng Shu had 30-40,000; Wei may have had up to 80,000 committed by the end (incl. 30,000 that was wiped out by the Flooding of Seven Armies). At Xiaoting the total size of Shu's is usually thought to be 40-50,000.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 19:12
  • @Semaphore i wasn't referring to the size of combatants. considering 16-50 million total population, that is totally to be expected. Especially considering rice is a more efficient crop than grain and can support a greater non-farming population. If you consider numbers of combatants in ancient Mediterranean history, you are likely to encounter similar numbers (roman army, persian army in the greek-persian wars etc.). Rather, what's astounding is the figure 16-50 mil total population. as it isn't that much greater one and a half millennia later. And then china still was the greatest.
    – Matthaeus
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 11:38
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    @Matthaeus I misread your comment, but the population figure is far too high as well. The 16 million number comes from the A.D. 280 census; during the Three Kingdoms period official census results only adds up to about 8 million. Even accounting for under-reporting, there is no way to get anywhere close to 50 (nor 16) million after the great plagues of the 2nd century.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 15:56
  • imagine exponential growth with a base of 50 mil in the third century...china would burst now...(in the 1800ds china had somewhere between 200 and 250 mil, so just 4 times as much as in 200 AD? Not likely). However, the army sizes might not be exaggerated too much.
    – Matthaeus
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 23:20

You should consider the Bosnian war (in Yugoslavia) in the 1990s, there were basically three factions fighting each other: the Orthodox Christian Serbs (Serbia), the Catholic Croats (Croatia) and the Slavic Muslims (Bosnia). The war was three-sided from 1992 to 1994, and two-sided in 1995-1996.

You can see that even the table of belligerents in the Wikipedia lists three sides.


The second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War may be a good example. There was a civil war between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party (CPC) factions, and in the middle of this Japan invaded. Both KMT and CPC resisted the Japanese, and at some point they even (nominally) cooperated. This cooperation was brief, however, and there were major clashes between these factions since 1941 (while they were also fighting the Japanese).

The situation came to a head in late 1940 and early 1941 when there were major clashes between the Communist and KMT forces. In December 1940, Chiang Kai-shek demanded that the CCP’s New Fourth Army evacuate Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces. Under intense pressure, the New Fourth Army commanders complied, but they were ambushed by Nationalist troops and soundly defeated in January 1941. This clash, which would be known as the New Fourth Army Incident, weakened the CCP position in Central China and effectively ended any substantive co-operation between the Nationalists and the Communists and both sides concentrated on jockeying for position in the inevitable Civil War. It also ended the Second united front formed earlier to fight the Japanese. (wikipedia)

  • and even while cooperating in some areas, they were fighting in others. And that went on throughout WW2, with both sides also actively engaging in operations to persuade the US (and others) to stop supporting the other side.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 6, 2013 at 7:41

Feudal Japan is also an intriguing example of what you are looking for.

The Genpei War was a conflict that featured three major belligerents: The Minamoto (Yoritomo) clan, The Taira clan, and the Minamoto (Yoshinaka) clan, all battling for dominance of the imperial court. To a lesser extent, the Fujiwara Clan, who had long been part of the ruling elite, participated in the political intrigue during this period.

The war in Japan during The Sengoku Period in particular was extremely fierce and protracted, lasting from the 15th to the 17th century. It also featured numerous powerful factions. The authority of both the shogunate and the Imperial Court collapsed, and provincial Governors (shugo) and other local samurai leaders emerged as the daimyo, who would battle each other, religious factions (e.g. the Ikkō-ikki) and others for land and power for the next 150 years or so.

Over one hundred domains clashed and warred throughout the archipelago, as clans rose and fell, boundaries shifted, and some of the largest battles in all of global pre-modern history were fought.


The Tripartite Struggle for Kannauj , is a very good example. There were 3 sides, The Pala rulers from Bengal, the Gurjara Pratihara of Rajasthan and West, and The Rashtrakuta, from South Or Deccan. The war continued for more than 3 generations on each side. Finally, The Pratihara rulers emerged victorious. This was an important era in history of India. The very era, from around 750 AD to 900 AD is named as Tripartite Struggle This is an accurate representation


Syrian civil war Syrian government and allies vs FSA and allies vs Kurds and allies vs ISIS and allies vs Al -aeda and allies


This seems to be most prevalent in civil wars of a country. The most recent example I can think of if the Angolan Civil War where the 3 main factions - UNITA, MPLA and FNLA fought eachother in equal measure and supported by various great/superpowers around the world. Of course at the end it became a massive proxy war between South Africa and Cuba.

In addition to Anixx's answer you should also be aware that in WW2, a similar thing happened, but this time the country was divided on political lines (Communist vs. non-communist) and both were against the occupying Germans. See this book.

  • 1
    I like this answer, and think you are on to something. However, you really should mention what country during WW2 you are thinking of. My first thought was China, until I reached the word "Germans" instead of the expected "Japanese".
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 14:55
  • 2
    Oh, also the "most recent example" of this would probably be the ongoing Syrian civil war, the most prominent three parties of which are the (largely Shia) supporters of Assad, The secular FSA, and the Sunni islamist ISIS, all of which have fought against each other.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 17:10

The biggest multiple side war was probably World War II. Biggest in all respects, including the number of sides.

Soviet Union started the war on the side of Germany; they jointly invaded Poland, and Soviet Union helped Germany against the allies.

Then Soviet Union started its own war with Finland. As a result, Finland became Germany's ally, but their participation in the war with Soviet Union was very limited. The Finns took back their territory and refused in further help with the invasion of Soviet Union.

In 1944 they switched sides and fought the Germans for a short time.

France first declared a war on Germany, then was defeated and become German ally. There were actually two governments of France, fighting on different sides. When Germany invaded Soviet Union, Ukrainians immediately tried to declare their independence and organized an independent army. At various times this army fought Germans and Soviets, but there was also a large scale Ukrainian-Polish war.

Similar story was with other nations whose main goal was fighting for independence.

Some nations of Soviet Union had approximately equal numbers of soldiers fighting of the German and Soviet sides. There was also a Russian army fighting on German side.

EDIT. Some commenters argue that German and Soviet co-ordinated invasion of Poland can be considered as "one side" in the war. OK, suppose that SU was a third side. This is another argument for saying that this was a multi-side war, if it was 3-sided from the very beginning. But I hope even those commenters will not try to argue that Soviet Union was a part on the US-British side in 1939-1940 (or that SU was not involved in the war at that time).

I am very surprised that my answer is qualified here as "full of cold war propaganda". On my opinion, I only stated the well known facts. But unfortunately stating of facts can be also considered as "propaganda" by some people, I had a lot of experience with this.

EDIT2. In 1941-1948 there was a real 4-sided war on the territory that is now known as Western Ukraine. The sides were: Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Soviet Union. Each side had an army; and all participants fought all other sides. For the details, see Timothy Snider, Bloodlands.

  • 3
    Really? You think Soviet invasions of Poland, Finland, and peaceful takover of Baltic and Besarabia did not really happen? On which side did SU invade Poland?
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 1:11
  • 10
    Not downvoting, but I don't see three inarguable "sides" here; only two which a couple of participants switched between.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 17:24
  • 2
    Roman Yankovsky and Nakilon:: do you want to dispute any facts that I stated, or only to put a label "propaganda"?
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 0:48
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    @RomanYankovsky: no use of denying Soviet-German cooperation in their invasion of Poland in 1939. This has been very well established beyond any shadow of the doubt. If you care to google something like "russian german invasion poland 1939" and click on Images your eyes will feast on numerous photographs of German and Soviet soldiers, generals, and politicians fraternizing with each other in the jointly occupied Poland. Just because Russian history books attempt to hide that (very poorly, BTW) that doesn't mean that it didn't happen.
    – Michael
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 3:20
  • 3
    @Alex the OP's asked whether there were at any given times three parties all at war with each other. That would have been the case, for example, if France was fighting, let's say, the British and at the same time also the Germans.
    – Matthaeus
    Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 20:19

Currently ongoing Syrian Civil War is the best example. There are 4 fronts and none of them are event CLOSE to getting allied Government-Which is dictatorial, supported by Shia Hezbollah Opposition-Has both Islamist and Secular fronts, including Free Syrian Army and is supported by Al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda operative ISIL-Do I need to say anything? Kurdistan-Are a separate ethnic group which wants independence


The Syrian conflict is a great example, in fact I can't think of a conflict with more "players" both direct and indirect.

Directly though there are at least 6 different factions including the government, and within these factions there are even more smaller groups that keep changing allegiances based on the situation. This BBC article is a great example of the chaos. Please do note, it is 2 years old and some groups have morphed into others, switched allegiances, etc. But it illustrates quite well at that time just how many different groups there were fighting.


Then of course you have The US and NATO keeping an eye on the situation focused now on groups like Al-Nusra Front and Daash/ISIL/ISIS, with Iran backing Assad via Hezbollah for the most part. Russia is a traditional ally of Assad, but not contributing much to the government other than diplomatically.


The Eighty-Years' War / Thirty-Years War which ends in 1648 with the Westphalia Treaties was a very long conflict in which all European countries and peoples took part in various coalitions, alliances that changed over time.

It is widely considered as a religious War because the catholic European powers (Holy Roman Empire, Spain, etc) fought against Protestant enemies protected by Gustav Adolph of Sweden, later joined by Catholic France, who wants to counter-balance the power of the Austrian Habsbourg dynasty and prevent them from reaching hegemony in Europe through the transformation of the Holy Roman Empire in a "real" State (it was rather a confederation).

But it is also a struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and its northern and eastern dependencies and a political struggle in the Holy Roman Empire to strengthen the weak power of the Habsbourg Emperor.

However it is a major conflict in European history in which the alliances changed a lot. It led to the formation of a power structure in continental Europe that lasted until the Napoleonic Wars.

  • 1
    This was not really a three sided war. Just various anti-Hapsburg forces, some from religious motives, others from political motives.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 20:36

In the above answers I haven't seen the warring states period of China. It was like the real life version of the game Risk with seven (major) players for over 2 centuries till one of them conquered all the others at the end.


The war of the League of Cambrai may well suit since most factions within the war were at one time allies and at others enemies. Although there were two "clear" sides to the war.


Groups of Scandinavians went on viking raids in various christian kingdoms in western Europe from about 800 to about 1000, striking the British Islands, Germany, France, Spain and sometimes even the Mediterranean. It may be a matter of dispute how much those raids were war and how much they were crime. But certainly the times that viking groups tried to take over lands count as war.

Muslim pirates from various bases in the Mediterranean raided Mediterranean shipping and seacoasts. Muslim groups often took over various places in western Europe and used them as bases for further raiding. For example Fraxinet in Provence from 889-973. The Muslims of Fraxinet closed the passes of the Alps for decades.

In 842 a fleet from Muslim ruled Miseno near Naples landed at Ostia and sacked Saint Peter's in Rome.

The Magyars settled in Hungary about 900 and started raiding western Europe, not just Germany but also Italy, France, and even Spain.

Thus many regions of western Europe were subject to being raided by two or three different sets of external enemies, and that sometimes happened during civil wars or wars between kingdoms.

Thus there were possibilities for multi sided conflicts in that era.

For example, Wikipedia says:

There was a skirmish between Muslim and Hungarian cavalry in May 942, ended with a Hungarian victory.


And it seems very probable that Magyar/Muslim skirmish happened very close in time and space to Muslim/Christian conflicts and Magyar/Christian conflicts.

Wikipedia also says about King Conrad I the Peaceful of Burgundy (reigned 937-993) that:

According the chronicler Ekkehard IV, in a story that is probably apocryphal, when Conrad learned that both the Magyars and the Saracens of Fraxinetum were marching against him, he sent envoys to both armies warning them of the other. The envoys offered Burgundian aid to each invader against the other and then informed them of the other's whereabouts. When the Magyars and Saracens met, the Burgundians held back and only attacked when the opposing forces were spent. In this way, both invading armies were destroyed and the captives sold into slavery.[1][2]


This could be another version of the same story.

In any case, medieval writers could imagine three way conflicts happening during this era.


Maybe the Great Northern War?


  • 1
    How so? What are the three sides? I don't see any evidence for more than two in the linked Wikipedia page, but perhaps I'm missing something.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 17:32
  • 7
    The answer would be better if you summarized what features of the Great Northern War fulfilled the question.
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 18:24
  • nope. not three sided
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 20:36

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