Last week I wrote a post on the Monkey Cage arguing that Syria now qualifies as a civil war, by standard scholarly definitions. Jeremy Pressman wrote a smart response that asks why anyone would deny that a country was experiencing a civil war. After all, what are the risks? A declaration of a civil war does not carry with it any real international obligations, like a declaration of a genocide does. Pressman makes the point that the reluctance to call Syria a civil war can be attributed to U.S. interests or norms. He writes:
one possibility is that the Obama administration prefers a narrative of democratic protest against a brutal regime. A civil war, which means both pro- and anti-regime violence, muddies that narrative.
He goes on to suggest that
admitting a full-fledged civil war is underway muddies the narrative that the US is going to help and protect the non-violent movement against the brutal and violent regime. Members of Congress and the US public would probably be less likely to support increasing intervention if they realize a civil war is underway.
Pressman concludes with this observation:
Could Obama officials be worried that calling Syria a civil war might negatively affect the calculations of groups inside Syria such as Druze, Christians, members of the business community etc?
I think Pressman is onto something. Calling the Syrian conflict a “civil war” would likely cause officials in the US and abroad to consider more serious policy options than the current label of “unrest” which dominates media coverage of the conflict. I have a couple additional thoughts:
1). Concerns about legitimizing Assad’s propaganda. Because most of the violence is by the regime against unarmed protestors, it still looks like a classic case of one-sided violence. International observers may resist calling the conflict a “civil war” in order to maintain the sense that the Syrian population is being wrongfully victimized, and that the regime is the sole perpetrator. In Assad’s most recent televised address, he claims that the country is being held hostage by armed Islamists and terrorists. Most observers deny such claims, as well as the regime’s claim that “terrorists” have killed 2,000 soldiers and regime functionaries. Of course, it is highly likely that the regime has exaggerated its losses, and Assad is clearly misrepresenting the opposition and its demands. But it is equally clear that in recent months, regime loyalists have become casualties of violent attacks from the opposition side. The international community may be slow to call the Syrian conflict a civil war for fear that Assad might feel even more emboldened about the fight.
2). Ambiguities about the organizational capacity of the Free Syrian Army vs. local militias. For some people, a necessary feature of a civil war is a viable and organized armed opponent that confronts the regime. In the Syrian case, the Free Syrian Army is the primary armed challenger. But the FSA has yet to prove its capacity to actually degrade the regime’s staying power any more than the highly disruptive strikes and demonstrations that persist on a daily basis in the country. Estimates of its size range from 1,000 to 40,000–none of these figures have been confirmed. And at any rate, the FSA has denied some attacks on regime loyalists, indicating that in addition to the FSA, local militias may be perpetrating killings against regime loyalists independently from the FSA. This is not surprising, nor is it unique to the Syrian case: loosely organized, opportunistic, local militias are common features of most civil wars.
3). Plain, old-fashioned, wishful thinking. Syria likely crossed the threshold into civil war last summer. Why were we all so slow to admit it? A considerable body of work in psychology shows that people essentially see what they want to see. No one–not even Assad’s regime–wants to see a civil war in Syria. My guess is that observers all over the world–whether they be in the UN, the Arab League, the US, Iran, Russia, China, or Turkey–are also hoping that the unrest stops soon. I, myself, have been holding out hopes that the Syrian uprising would remain nonviolent. I have also been convinced that the opposition’s best chance at winning would be through effective prosecution of civil resistance through a unified, popular movement. And I have not wanted to distract attention from the persistent and courageous activists who employ nonviolent tactics in the face of regime repression on a daily basis. The label “civil war” seems so violent, so intractable, so uncharacteristic of the spirit of the resistance that continues to unfold in Syria. So, although I wouldn’t deny the fact that Syria had become a civil war, I certainly wasn’t rushing to embrace the fact either.
Sadly, despite our best wishful thinking, we cannot make reality disappear by ignoring its existence.