Syria unrest: a popular uprising or civil war?

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In November, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the violence in Syria was beginning to resemble a civil war, it was viewed by some as a tactic to protect Moscow’s Arab ally from any possibility of foreign intervention.

But a day later, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed the concern. Last week, Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said the conflict amounted to a civil war.

As violence continues in Syria’s nine-month uprising, the label “civil war” appears to be replacing the previous characterization of a repression or crackdown by President Bashar Assad’s regime. This despite the lack of full-fledged fighting between government forces and rebels, as was recently seen in Libya.

The threshold most often quoted for a civil war is 1,000 killed with at least 100 dead on each side. With the recent handful of attacks by the opposition Free Syrian Army on government and military targets, the strict definition might fit, but whether it actually is one is more complicated.


Beyond the definition favored by political scientists, the accepted concept of a civil war is based on the idea that it is two-sided. But it remains unclear just how two-sided the violence in Syria is.

“It’s a kind of a civil war,” said Andrew Tabler, a Middle East fellow with the Washington Institute. “I think it just gets to a point of, what else can you call it?”

The regime’s use of shabiha -- militia forces predominantly composed of Alawites, the sect from which Assad draws most of his support –- to crack down on protesters in the majority Sunni country has set the stage for a sectarian civil war, Tabler said.

“The U.N. is using it as a way of saying this could get a lot worse,” said James Fearon, a professor of political science at Stanford University who studies civil wars.

The dire prediction is a way of underscoring the urgency for action by regional players, including the Arab League, he said.

But calling it a civil war could complicate things in the future.

Intervention based on the need to protect civilians would have far more legitimacy than if the conflict escalated into a sectarian one and outside forces helped one side over another, Tabler said.

“There is a tradition of civil war implying that intervention is not legitimate or legal,” he said.

Most recently the issue came up in the debate over intervention in Libya’s conflict –- which some continued to label a revolution and not a civil war –- despite mass defections and a well-armed opposition.

But unlike Libya, the sectarian fissures in Syria make it ripe for a civil war.

“What we’re seeing is growing sectarian killings in the region of Homs, and that is very troubling because it could be an indication of something more horrible to come,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “But to say it’s a civil war is a bit alarmist at this point.”

He termed it more of a “small-scale insurgency,” but one that could quickly grow.

As of now the armed opposition by the Free Syrian Army, whose ranks are made up of defected soldiers, is relegated mostly to small pockets of the country. And it is not clear exactly how organized they are. Their operations so far have consisted of small, hit-and-run attacks.

In a news briefing last week, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner disagreed with Pillay’s characterization and at the same time distanced the administration from Clinton’s comments weeks earlier:

“There’s no equality between the terrible violence being perpetrated by Assad’s forces against innocent protesters and some isolated incidents of violence among the opposition.… There’s no way to equate the two, which, in my view, is implied in using the term ‘civil war.’ ”


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-- Raja Abdulrahim in Los Angeles