Protests

Protests on June 22 in Yabroud, between Syrian capital Damascus and besieged city Homs. Photo from Reuters.

A civil war by any other name is what? An uprising, an internal conflict, a rebellion? What is so special about the term civil war, and why are governments, media and analysts shying away from openly using that label to describe what's happening in Syria?

Many scholars of conflict and war consider 1,000 deaths a year to be a benchmark. That's when a conflict or a dispute can be labeled an actual war. A vague and imperfect calculation (what happens when 999 die, or 800, 700?), it is nevertheless a general gauge for the severity and scope of a conflict.

Syria has long ago passed that line in the sand. Opposition fighters and President Bashar al-Assad's loyalists both give figures of 3,000 dead on each side -- and that's just for the soldiers and irregular fighters. The total number of deaths in the uprising that began early last year lies somewhere between 10,000 and 16,000, including thousands of civilians, according to most independent calculations. That means already more have been killed in Syria than Americans have died in the multi-year conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan said on June 2 that the specter of all-out civil war ...  grows by the day. Readers across the world have seen semantic gymnastics in headlines about the conflict and in the language used by media organizations and diplomatic leaders. The country is either heading to civil war, descending toward it, sliding into it -- but just can't quite seem to get there yet.

It's A War -- Over Definitions

Asked on June 12 by reporters whether he thought Syria was in a civil war, the peace-keeping chief of the U.N., Hervé Ladsous, said, Yes, I think we can say that. Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control. ...  I think there is a massive increase in the level of violence, so massive indeed that in a way it indicates some change of nature.

But debate about whether to call the conflict a civil war remains heated within Washington, mostly due to whether or not opposition groups in Syria can be seen as a unified body.

Some scholars, such as Aram Nerguizian, a fellow at the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies who specializes in Syria, called the categorization of conflicts through sheer quantification arbitrary. Nerguizian said a civil war presumes an underlying assumption of parity, which does not yet exist between the opposing sides in Syria.

He styled what's happening there as more of an expanded insurgency, but qualified that the country may yet enter into a protracted (and true) civil war similar to what occurred in Algeria in the 1990s. Nerguizian gave two other predictions for the country's future: the institutionalization of sectarian divisions and the secession of territories in the northwest dominated by Alawite Mulisms, the sect that has been in power for decades, as a separate political entity. Those troubling outcomes are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Yet others, such as Brookings senior fellow Daniel Byman, have more readily accepted that the nature of conflict in Syria has changed. Byman, who specializes in the Middle East and counter-terrorism, called Ladsous' civil war comment something the world has long known, in a June 14 piece for Foreign Policy magazine.

He has criticized U.S. efforts regarding the country as an attempt to avoid confronting the ballooning problems there. Byman noted that moral and strategic compromises on Syria would be justifiable if the only alternative is an increasingly bloody civil war. But he also thinks a negotiated middle ground approach is likely to fail and do little to end the violence.

Elizabeth O'Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for Understanding War, said what would convince others in the diplomatic and analyst community would be if the belligerent party -- that is, the rebels -- became more organized. The Syrian opposition is heading in that direction, but elements like the Free Syrian Army, which many smaller groups are pledging to, still lack an identifiable command and control capacity. Rebel militias in Syria largely operate on their own as guerrilla forces rather than receive orders through a unified leadership.

She qualified, though, that semantics shouldn't matter. Calling it a civil war shouldn't change how policymakers approach the conflict. Conditions on the ground are what matter and policy should reflect the conditions on the ground.

But the concern over shifting perceptions may be exactly why a frustrating semantic battle is coinciding with actual battles on the ground. After all, changing perceptions imply changes to foreign policy actions and responses.

Words, Labels, Actions

O'Bagy believes that the Assad regime itself has an interest in seeing the labeling of the conflict unchanged. To do so not only has implications for how people see the conflict, she said, but for how the conflict would be resolved.

If the Assad regime ever recognized the opposition as a unified belligerent in the conflict, rather than simply a loose group of foreign terrorists, as it has been prone to calling them so far, it would implicitly recognize them as a legitimate party. Which means that should the international community compel them to go into peace talks, Damascus would need to negotiate with the opposition as an equal.

But policymakers in the West are likewise worried that the term civil war may move public opinion to force them to become more actively involved. After years of fighting in the Middle East, and now wrecked by financial crises, the West has little stomach for another foreign intervention.

Furthermore, toppling the regime in Damascus would alienate the Russian government, which still sees Assad as an ally; destroy any chance of dealing with the Iranians, a key Damascus backer; and could further destabilize an already precarious regional situation.

Nerguizian warned that there is very little one can do to make things fundamentally better in the short term. From his perspective, further involvement by outside powers has a serious potential to backfire. Comparisons with Libya would be inaccurate, since Syrian anti-government forces have not seized large caches of heavy weaponry and remain lightly armed.

But Byman noted in the FP article that the United States should ...  more aggressively support the Syrian opposition in conjunction with its allies, even if it cannot directly intervene as it did in Libya. He adds, We don't know what kind of government the Syrian opposition would produce, or even if it can get its act together enough to produce a government should Assad fall, but it is unlikely to be as bad as the current regime in terms of human rights abuses and hostility to the United States.

While the U.S. remains hesitant, countries within the region are taking proactive steps that look very much like support for either one of two distinct sides.

Experts think that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran are sending their support to the opposition (the former) and the loyalists (the latter), including financial and military support. Turkey is harboring the Free Syrian Army, perhaps even providing it with logistical, military and financial support. Russia has anchored three warships in the Syrian port of Tartus to protect its access to the Mediterranean.

But even if opposition groups in Syria haven't met certain academic criteria, it seems that in terms of ideology, two resolute camps have already emerged.

One side is driven by unwavering enmity not only for the Assad government and the individual that leads it, but for what he represents: a minority ethnicity with different religious beliefs ruling over a larger community. The other is fighting to preserve its vested interests and an autocratic secularism that has already perished elsewhere across the region.

Observers, then, should acknowledge the truth on the ground. The Syrian Civil War is neither unavoidable nor avoidable: it has already arrived. While the West argues about labels, in the minds of Syrian civilians and in the numbers of dead, a civil war is already happening.