Why No One Wants to Call Syria a Civil War

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.

  1. I respectfully disagree with the authors’ four reasons that Syria is not being called a civil war. This label is not being applied to Syria for two different and somewhat contradictory reasons.

    First, the term civil war implies a conflict that is by definition internal to a state, and therefore, a sovereign issue that the world community *should* stay out of. Thus, labeling a conflict a civil war creates a disincentive for foreign states to get involved, as foreign involvement could be seen as a) a violation of a state’s sovereignty, or b) as a foreign state supporting an ally, and as such, a declaration of war.

    Consequently, by not labeling the conflict in Syria a civil war the US government, the world community, and journalists, are leaving the door open for, at a minimum, the discussion of intervention. As it stands, the violence in Syria is a case of state-sponsored violence against a noncombatant population, a type of violence that *should* be prevented by foreign intervention. By claiming that the Asad regime is victimizing innocent civilians the world community is appealing to normative precedents; it is alright and even objectively good to prevent the death of innocents, while it may not be o.k. to get involved in an internal conflict that would be long, drawn out, and costly. There are pre-exsiting cases, like Kosovo, the Balkans more generally, and a variety of African cases in which foreign intervention did or could have prevented the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.

    In sum, by not labeling the conflict in Syria a civil war the international community is hedging for better or for worse: it is giving itself room to get involved in what is most assuredly an internal conflict.

    1. The problem with that explanation is that almost every conflict in the world is referred to as anything except a civil war these days, even though every single one is a civil war. In fact the only war that definitely couldn’t be designated one in the past ten years would be the Russian-Georgian conflict a few years ago.

    2. Unfortunately, the opposition in Syria has far transcended the “noncombatant” category. I am in no way justifying the violent repression carried out by Assad’s regime, but the conflict has moved beyond being characterized by one-sided violence, thus further complicating the intervention issue.

  2. I’m curious why it matters, analytically. Do violent conflicts that pass the 1,000 death threshold tend to have different outcomes or long term effects than those that do not?

    1. Interestingly to the best of my knowledge there is not much work on this question. Two operational definitions of civil war are frequently employed by statistical researchers: the 1,000 death threshold, and a threshold of 25 deaths per annum. In principle one could study this quite readily as there is work on the impact of civil wars upon society upon which to build (and the impact is generally grim). Not surprisingly, there is a considerable literature about how best to conceive of, and measure, civil war (see gated link below for an example).


  3. talmid-milchama’s points make a lot of sense, but I do like the reasoning employed by the authors. Wish we were working with a bit more history, some concrete examples.

    I wanted to hear of examples where larger powers purposely don’t term something a “civil war” and get/don’t get involved. How was Kosovo handled?

    Also: John McCain very much wants intervention. I’m wondering about his usage of the term “civil war.”

    On another tangent, one that I’d like to hear some feedback on – the nytimes ran an article today about the PR the Assad’s bought: “Syria’s Assads Turned to West for Glossy P.R.” Is this a matter of dictators living in their own ego, or is there some strategic value to such propaganda?

  4. I totally agree with talmid-milchama. The last paragraph of the post doesn’t make any sense to me, I’m afraid. “US politicians”, “Americans”, “American soldiers”, “members of the UN”, “the world” seem to me pretty different actors. Some may or may not want to get involved, but as we talk of “sliding into civil war”, the door is open. There is justification to intervene to avoid civil war, but not so much to stop it.

  5. People may be interested in similar discussions about Iraq from 2006 , and a post from mid-January of this year on Syria at The Monkey Cage .

  6. As I mentioned above, every single conflict currently raging is a civil war. Even if we go with either the 1,000 dead or the 25 dead a year measurement I suspect 99% qualify as civil wars. It’s been the most common form of war for decades now, even wars between states since the 1950s have generally included civil wars. For some reason newspapers and reports simply prefer to refer to them as ‘insurgencies’ or ‘conflicts’ even if there’s little chance of the U.S. becoming involved. I recall the BBC publishing an argument on why it wasn’t calling the war in Iraq a civil war, frankly it seemed incredibly flimsy.

  7. I would have to agree with Talmid regarding the implications of not calling Syria a civil war for the American public and American policy makers. We have a lot of survey evidence by now suggesting that the American public is more supportive of humanitarian intervention than intervention for what Jentleson calls “internal political change (which includes civil war and foreign imposed regime change). As a result, the Bush administration pressured journalists not to use the phrase “civil war” to describe Iraq because they thought it would (further) reduce American support for the war. Intervention in Libya was similarly framed in terms of humanitarian protection rather than regime change or intervention in a civil war.

    So if policy makers are reluctant to apply this label, I think it is because they want to keep the door open to (humanitarian) intervention. That said, I am increasingly hearing journalists use the civil war label for Syria (CBS was using it this morning, for example).

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