Why it's time to call Syria a civil war

A generally accepted definition of civil war is a fight for control of a nation, involving the state, one or more non-state actors, and at least 1,000 battlefield casualties. Sounds like Syria.

Edlib News Network ENN/AP
This citizen journalism image purports to show Syrian rebels gathered on their vehicle in the northern town of Kfar Nebel, in Idlib province, Syria, Tuesday, June 5.

Warning that Syria "risks" falling into a civil war appears to be among the last cards being played in the tragic diplomatic dance around what should be done about the bloody uprising against Bashar al-Assad's Baath regime in Syria.

Depending on a country's view of the issue, the threat of a civil war breaking out is an argument for the international community to do more (though precisely what isn't exactly clear), or to do nothing, since foreign intervention will bring on that feared outcome even faster.

But the fact is that Syria has been in a civil war for quite some time. A generally accepted definition of a civil war is a fight for control of a nation, involving the state, one or more non-state actors, and at least 1,000 battlefield casualties. Syria's uprising is more than a year old, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 13,000 people have died in the fighting so far, with 2,400 dead since the middle of this April alone.

Various armed factions opposed to Mr. Assad operate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and have been conducting ambushes of government troops. Assad has mustered regular troops, who have heavily shelled neighborhoods in Homs, Hama, and other towns that host rebel supporters, killing armed supporters and unarmed men, women and children alike. Irregular militias loyal to Assad, called shabiha and generally drawn from the Alawite sect Assad belongs to, have been increasingly active. Shabiha have been blamed for the massacre of 108 civilians, many of them children, outside Houla two weeks ago.

But to listen to almost every official who talks about Syria, there's no civil war yet. "I believe that in the council there's an understanding that any sliding toward full-scale civil war in Syria would be catastrophic, and the security council now needs to have that kind of strategic discussion on how that needs to be avoided," Jean-Marie Guehenno, an aide to UN Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, said last week.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, complaining that Russia supports Assad, said that the Russians "keep telling me they don't want to see a civil war, and I have been telling them their policy is going to help contribute to a civil war." Russian President Vladimir Putin, staunchly opposed to international action against Assad, says “we are seeing nascent elements of a civil war today. This is extremely dangerous."

UN boss Ban Ki-moon (with bonus hyperbole at the end) says ongoing massacres "could plunge Syria into a catastrophic civil war ... from which the country would never recover." (Syria's war, already devastating, could worsen. But it's amazing what countries can recover from; the US Civil War claimed more than 500,000 lives out of a population of 31 million).

So why not call Syria's civil war a civil war? My best guess is that foreign officials hope that by insisting it's a future threat, rather than a present reality, they can create more support for the notion that Mr. Annan's "peace plan" might eventually work. The fact that Syria has grown more violent, not less, as the combination of unarmed observers and jawboning has been unleashed on the problem, isn't dwelt upon. That's because the alternatives to diplomacy are foreign military action, which would be expensive, bloody, and risk a broader regional war, or doing nothing. Neither option is palatable.

Syrian rebels aren't too keen on the "civil war" label, either. They'd like to frame their uprising as one of "the people" against an illegitimate regime, not of a national house truly divided. Libya's rebels against Muammar Qaddafi also didn't like the term (I received multiple complaints from the supporters of Libyan rebels when I started using "civil war" to describe the fight in Libya last year). Mr. Assad hates the phrase too – his opponents are simply terrorists, mostly foreigners in his telling. To admit to a civil war is to admit that a large proportion of his subjects despise the regime he heads.

The London-based Syrian Observatory says that as many as 2,300 of the more than 13,400 people killed since the uprising against Assad's regime began in March last year have died since April 12.

There are of course many types of civil war, some far longer and bloodier than others. Keeping the war from deepening at home, and spreading to neighbors, is a noble international priority. But it's time to start calling this war by its proper name.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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