What’s Behind Labeling the Events in Syria a “Civil War”?

Many changes have taken place in the editorial practices of global and Arab media regarding Syria since the start of the 2011 revolution against the regime. But one shift which has become fixed—especially in the West—is describing what is occurring in the country as a civil war. This term began to appear in major international media, such as Reuters, AFP, AP and others, at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and was reflected in the political statements of many Western nations.

In Syria, it appears that a broad segment of people do not want to use the term “civil war,” with some opponents of the Syrian regime still describing the events as a revolution, while others call it a “war” or “proxy war,” and regime supporters describing what is occurring as a “crisis,” “events,” and so on.

Putting these descriptions aside, although the term civil war is convenient, is it appropriate? 

In the sequence of events in Syria, the formulation closest to reality is as follows: Peaceful protests and demonstrations were met with violence by ruling authorities, and members of the then-revolution began to take up arms in a minimal capacity. This armament was accompanied by foreign intervention from Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey along two lines—either to support the opposition or the regime. The Syrian-Turkish border became a pathway for every foreigner or Arab who wanted undertake “jihad” in Syria, and multinational factions began grappling on the ground. A balance of powers prevailed throughout most stages of the war, as whichever of the two sides grew weaker was empowered to equal the other. This continued until the end of 2015, when Russian forces intervened to flip the balance in favor of the regime and its allies.

Civil war is defined as “an armed conflict between the citizens of one country.” This type of conflict occurred in Syria with the first defections from the Syrian regime army in 2011 and the appearance of the Free Syrian Army. The conflict grew increasingly complicated with the appearance of Islamic groups and the multinational al-Qaeda, in the form of the Nusra Front, and then with the entry of the Islamic State terrorist organization—which emerged in Iraq and is composed of Arab and foreign nationalities—and their occupation of large sections of Syria. The conflict expanded, and Arab and global forces increased support for particular groups. The warplanes of the international coalition occupied Syria’s skies in 2014, followed by Russian warplanes in 2015.

Two factors distinguish Syria’s war from civil wars of the past: the large number of foreign backers and the large number of parties to the conflict, which results in multiple sub-wars. Last August, the New York Times published a report about the Syrian war, in which it asked military and political experts whether there were any historical wars or conflicts which resembled what was happening in Syria. One of the first responses was from Professor Barbara F. Walter from the University of California, San Diego, an expert on civil wars. At the time, she said there was no war in history like the Syrian war, and added: “This is a really, really tough case.”

Civil wars throughout history have been conflicts between the citizens of one country which end with one party losing and submitting to a deal, or with foreign solutions being imposed on the conflict’s exhausted parties with a deal that includes everyone, as with Lebanon’s Taif Agreement in 1989, which ended the more than 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

The New York Times report said: “Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.”

The report added:

That might have happened in Syria: The core combatants — the government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011—are quite weak and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long. But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign powers—including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey—whose interventions have suspended the usual laws of nature. Forces that would normally slow the conflict’s inertia are absent, allowing it to continue far longer than it otherwise would.

Bolstering this report’s conclusions, an article published in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper last September divided Syria into six areas of influence. The first was the area controlled by the regime and its allies, which extended from al-Suwayda and Deraa city in southern Syria to the capital Damascus, up through Homs, and then to Tartous and the city of Latakia on the Syrian coast. The second was the Kurdish region, which includes three American military airbases, in the northern Hasaka countryside in northwestern Syria and Ain al-Arab / Kobani in northern Syria.

The third is the Turkish region, which floated to the surface of the Syrian war this year when Turkish forces, in support of the Free Syrian Army, entered the border town of Jarabulus in northernmost Syria and expelled the Islamic State group. The fourth region is spread between the Deraa and Quneitra provinces and the Jordanian border in southern Syria and the disengagement line with the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. This area is controlled by Jordanian and Israeli intelligence.

Al-Hayat described the fifth region as the Syrian Grozny, a reference to the Chechen capital. This area includes the Idlib region, the Hama and Aleppo countrysides, and part of the Latakia countryside. The sixth region is under ISIS control, and extends from the Palmyra countryside in the country’s center up to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria.

Recently, Syria has been awaiting changes to these regions, as the regime has continued to advance in the Damascus area for more than two months, following several settlements which included the expulsion of residents and armed opposition from the areas of Daraya, al-Muadimiya, Qudsaya, al-Hameh, Zakaya, and Khan al-Sheikh. It is working on similar deals in al-Tall, Wadi Barada, and Sa’sa’. The destination has been Idlib. Regime forces, backed by Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan fighters, also took control of eastern Aleppo city at the end of last year.

Usage of the term civil war may be convenient, but glosses over these many details. The Syrian case has started to go beyond the country’s borders and has become a global issue. International interests play a large role in the course of events and in their subsequent resolution. The question of reconstruction is also significant. Russia, which is embroiled on the ground with its military bases and in the skies, is not as interested in reconstruction of this country as it is with its interests, especially given that economically it cannot afford these costs and its war bills will be large. As for the United States, it is awaiting January 20th for its new president, Donald Trump, and to see his Syria policy.

Russia and the United States are also using the term civil war for their own ends. It allows Russia to justify its support for the Assad regime to protect a sovereign state against any militant or civilian who resists it, and it allows America to differentiate between the war with the regime and its battle with ISIS and justify its focus on fighting terrorism.

Hasan Arfeh is a Syrian journalist based in Turkey. He currently works for Radio Rozana.

Image: Photo: Free Syrian Army fighters drive past parked trucks affected by what the truck drivers said is a blocked road due to the fighting between the rebels and Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi