By Barbara F. Walter and Elizabeth Martin
Syria has been in the midst of a civil war since at least July of last year yet no one wants to call it that. U.S. politicians, Prime Ministers, members of the UN, the Arab League all refer to the situation in Syria as one that is “sliding towards civil war” or “heading towards civil war.” But almost no one is actually calling it a civil war.
But by all accounts the violence in Syria is a civil war. Syria long ago reached the 1,000 battle death threshold experts on civil war use to classify conflict as civil war. If this is the case, why is everyone tip-toeing around the issue?
We think there are at least 4 reasons why no one wants to call the violence in Syria a civil war. First, no politician wants to be connected to a conflict that has deteriorated on their watch. Second, the term “civil war” conjures up images of a long, bloody war, which is bad news for markets and election cycles. Third, labeling the violence as something as organized and destructive as a “civil war” creates political pressure for wealthier more powerful states to “do something.” Given the lengthy and costly US intervention in Iraq, Americans simply have no stomach for another difficult intervention in another Middle Eastern country.
But this still doesn’t explain why journalists don’t use the correct term. This is a trickier question to answer but one that gets to the zeitgeist of Americans more generally. No one in America, including journalists and editors at its major newspapers, wants to send American soldiers back to the Middle East.
So what does all this mean? Whenever the world refuses to call a spade a spade it’s because the world doesn’t want to get involved. The less willing outside states are to acknowledge the true extent of the crisis, the less pressure there will be to intervene. On the surface, this may seem irresponsible. But if intervention will have no effect, or perhaps only serve to make matters worse, clever semantics that serve to obscure reality may be more responsible than those that make it crystal clear.
See Page Fortna’s post on whether the Arab revolts are likely to lead to democratization.