Erica Chenoweth has a concise post arguing that Syria now meets the academic definition of a civil war. Her thoughts beg an interesting follow-up question: if Syria is in a civil war, why isn’t it being called a civil war?
In the United States, 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. For instance, in late December, a Syrian opposition figure said he told (h/t syriacomment.com) US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about a nascent guerilla movement:
To my surprise, she asked that the defectors lay down their arms. That’s an odd request. Why didn’t they ask the rebels in Libya to lay down their arms? How can they do it if at any moment they can be fired at and murdered? It’s impractical.
If Secretary Clinton is still trying to discourage Syrian opposition violence, then admitting a civil war is underway would not be helpful. (Are Clinton or other US officials afraid that a civil war would be a pathway to sectarian fighting and spreading regional violence?)
On December 2, Mark Toner, a deputy spokesman at the US State Department, was explicit that the United States did not like the civil war label because it equated the violence. He was asked in reference to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, saying that “the Syrian authorities’ continued ruthless repression, if not stopped now, could drive the country into a full-fledged civil war.” Toner:
…there’s no equality between the terrible violence being perpetrated by Asad’s forces against innocent protestors and some isolated incidents of violence among the opposition. We don’t agree with any violence by any party. We think violence needs to end in Syria. And that includes among the opposition elements. But there’s no way to equate the two, which, in my view, is implied in using the term “civil war.” That said, as we’ve been very clear, it’s Asad himself who has put his country in jeopardy and who has led them down a very dangerous path where there is increasing violence and violence being used by – against some elements within the opposition. So it’s – we do view it as a very volatile and very dangerous situation.
Victoria Nuland’s more recent comments were brief but echo a similar line: “We would simply note that…the violence continues. And most of the violence is at the hands of the regime.”
A second possibility is that the Obama administration does not fear the civil war label but that policymakers are less precise than academics. Chenoweth is explaining that Syria has crossed a specifically defined threshold. In contrast with that dichotomous view, policymakers may have more of an incremental understanding that is a reaction to the intensity of what is going on in Syria. So one could have civil wars that all meet Chenoweth’s standard but nonetheless look different. Policymakers’ ambiguity is a reflection of those differences. Thus, we have wording like sliding to civil war, civil war, de facto civil war, and full-fledged civil war.
CHUCK TODD: …Can you envision a scenario where it’s not going to take the world community or via the United Nations to have to do something militarily, a la Libya?
CLINTON: Yes, I think there could be a civil war with a very determined and well-armed and eventually well-financed opposition that is, if not directed by, certainly influenced by defectors from the army. We’re already seeing that, something that we hate to see because we are in favor of a peaceful —
CLINTON: — protest and a nonviolent opposition. But the way the Asad regime has responded has provoked people into taking up arms against them….
Clinton not only reinforces the idea that the administration prefers a non-violent toppling of Assad, but also discusses civil war in an ambiguous manner. She could mean here is what a civil war looks like and we’re already seeing that.
It also makes me wonder what is being discussed inside the administration. If officials assume it is a civil war but don’t want to publicly call it that, they may nonetheless be setting some policy on the basis of it already being a civil war.
A third, related option is about those outside the Obama administration pushing for U.S. intervention. On December 19, 2011, 58 foreign policy experts – including Abrams, Feith, Kristol, and Scheunemann – sent a letter to President Obama calling for more aggressive actions including establishing safe havens and working directly with the Syrian opposition. That argument is easier to make if the violence is one-sided (though the letter noted: “The conflict is quickly escalating towards civil war.”). Again, 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.
I mean these ideas to be suggestive as there is much more evidence to consider than I have done in this short post. The longer Assad hangs on, the more violence we are likely to see.
11:51 am: One other speculative thought: 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?
For a more recent post on Syria, see “Unanswered Questions About Syria Intervention.”