What’s in a name? Why the international community is divided on calling Syrian unrest a ‘civil war’

Laura Rozen


Is Syria in a civil war?

On Thursday, Navi Pillay, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, said that the nation's political unrest has indeed approached the level of a civil war. Pillay said her assessment stems in part from recognition that elements of the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime are increasingly calling for armed resistance. She added that UN estimates of the conflict's death toll--4,000 killed in the past nine months--are likely understated.

"I have said that as soon as there were more and more defectors threatening to take up arms--I said this in August before the Security Council --there was going to be a civil war," Pillay told a news conference in Geneva Thursday, according to a Reuters report. "At the moment, that's how I am characterizing this."

However, it appears that Pillay's is not yet the official UN line. Shortly after she delivered her remarks, her spokesman walked back the characterization, asserting that Syria is, rather, on the "cusp" of civil war, and "heading" in that direction.

"It is definitely heading that way, with more and more reports of armed resistance to the government forces," Pillay's spokesman Rupert Colville told Reuters. "It is on the cusp, but in these circumstances it is hard to say definitively at what point it becomes civil war."

So what prompted the walk-back? And what determines whether the Syrian bloodshed constitutes a civil war?

State Department urges Syria opposition to remain peaceful

The State Department has likewise shied away from Pillay's characterization, noting that the United States has called on both the Syrian regime and the pro-democracy protesters alike to refrain from violence.

"Obviously, we have been very clear in saying that we believe that . . . the opposition needs to remain peaceful," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told journalists at the press conference Thursday.

The United States believes that Syrian strongman Assad "has created the dynamics that we find ourselves facing today in the country where his regime's oppression and bloody repression of the protests has, not surprisingly, led to this kind of reaction that we've seen with the Free Syrian Army," Toner said, referring to an anti-Assad militia group, reportedly comprised of Syrian army deserters, who have been given refuge in Turkey. "So he has taken his country down a very dangerous path."

But even as he explained why one part of the Syrian opposition may be resorting to violence, Toner stopped short of calling the conflict a civil war.

"I don't know if we'd use that same terminology, because how we certainly view it is that the overwhelming use of force is—has been taken by Assad and his regime," Toner said when a reporter asked how State was categorizing the conflict. "So there's no—there's no kind of equanimity here."

Human rights expert: Definition is "a judgment call"

Human rights experts said the question is complicated, both legally and morally, since the "civil war" designation also entails assigning ultimate blame for the violence.

The question is "tough," Tom Malinowski, an official with  Human Rights Watch, told Yahoo News Friday by email. "It's not exactly a legal term of art, so whether to use the term at this stage is a judgment call."

For his part, Malinowski said, "I'm a bit uncomfortable using the term 'civil war' to describe what clearly began, and still largely is, a war by a government against its people." He further explained that "civil war" connotes "a war between two clearly defined ... political factions."

"The democracy movement in Syria was almost entirely peaceful at the start," Malinowski added. "Some people arm themselves after getting sick of being shot at every day and seeing their friends and relatives killed.  Only now are we seeing more organized armed resistance . . . .  But we still do not have an armed movement controlling territory fighting the regime."

"It's not always good to dub something war, because some of the human rights obligations of the government are lesser when they are facing a war situation [and] can operate under the laws of war, rather than regular human rights law," another American human rights expert told Yahoo News. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity Friday in order to share individual views that may not reflect those of the expert's organization.

Describing the conflict as a civil war could also complicate the moral and political case that some Western countries have made to apply pressure on the Damascus regime. Washington, for example, would be forced to decide whether to endorse one side's use of violence, while calling for restraint from the regime.

Of course, the United States has faced this dilemma before. Washington and European allies cited the need for humanitarian protection in Libya as a key reason for NATO to intervene on behalf of the anti-Gadhafi rebels there. Indeed, NATO effectively served as air force for armed Libyan rebels fighting to topple the Gadhafi regime.

So far, though, western allies have insisted that NATO has no intention of intervening on a similar basis in Syria--a more strategically sensitive country that neighbors Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.

International community mulls humanitarian corridors

While so far rejecting NATO intervention in Syria, international diplomats are considering other forms of humanitarian protection for the country. Turkey and France are both pushing for Western powers to erect "humanitarian corridors" that will offer Syrian civilians protection from the conflict.  Turkey and the Arab League also threatened this week to join the United States and Europe in imposing economic sanctions on Syria.

On Friday, the UN Human Rights Council voted 37 to 4 in favor of a resolution criticizing "Syria's crackdown  on opposition protesters," and appointing "a special investigator to probe abuses in the country," the Associated Press reported.

Russia and China voted against the measure, which didn't include any procedure for referring Syria to the UN Security Council for further action, the AP said.

Meantime, the Syrian opposition continues to show signs that it may not wait around for the global community to settle its semantic troubles in characterizing the conflict.

The main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said it had "struck a deal" with the Free Syrian Army "to work together against the government of President Assad," the BBC's Jonathan Head reported Thursday. The Syrian opposition body said the Free Syrian Army insurgents "had promised to use force only to protect civilians."

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