Few political debates are more divisive than the one over whether a country is in a civil war. When the killing began in Lebanon in 1975, many Lebanese took offense at the suggestion that this was a civil war. The same was true of Iraqis after the American invasion in 2003. Now, it is Syria that is dividing opinions. So, is Syria in a civil war?
When one moves beyond the emotional aspect of the discussion, the question is not academic. If we cannot properly define a given situation – and the “we” here applies to everyone from policymakers to journalists to Syrian citizens themselves – then we cannot determine the best methods required to address this situation.
Lebanon is a classical example. So powerful was the impulse of the Lebanese to regard their war as one in which they were the mere victims of foreign powers, that there was never any impetus to push forward a postwar reconciliation process. Yes, the Lebanese war did mutate into a succession of conflicts by proxy. Yet this would never have been possible had Lebanese antagonisms not been present.
The late Ghassan Tueni unwittingly contributed to the wall of denial by publishing a book in 1985 titled “Une Guerre Pour les Autres.” In English, this translates into “A War For The Others.” What Tueni meant was that the Lebanese, by fighting among themselves, had effectively become stand-ins for outside actors. However, many people transformed that phrase into “the war of the others,” suggesting that the Lebanese were innocent bystanders in their own disintegration. For years Tueni tried to correct that impression, to no avail.
If societies dislike admitting that they are in a civil war, because it only highlights their destructive impulses, the term is also resisted by politicians and foreign mediators. That’s because conceding the actuality of a civil war limits one’s diplomatic options.
This was evident last week when three European foreign ministers visited Beirut. One of them was noticeably loath to admit that Syria was caught up in a civil war, preferring to describe the situation as one of a savage regime repressing its population. No one had ever believed otherwise. However, state repression, particularly in mixed societies, does not necessarily preclude the presence of civil war.
On the contrary. Take an undeniable instance of civil war, albeit in an ethnically homogeneous country, namely the American Civil War. The Confederacy always interpreted that conflict as a textbook case of hegemony by the North, which had denied the Southern states their constitutional right to secede from the Union. Whether the argument was justified is irrelevant. Civil conflict is frequently the consequence of perceived misrule by a leader or a political or ethnic elite.
There is no black or white definition of civil war. There are degrees of civil war. Those who deny that a civil war is taking place in Syria employ one classification to make their case. They point out, rightly, that we haven’t reached the point of full-scale institutionalization of conflict. We do not see Syrian society mobilized for war, with the Free Syrian Army having rationalized its forces, systematically managing a leviathan of warfare against Bashar Assad’s regiments. We are nowhere near the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, for example, where military campaigns were the work of embryonic states.
But that may be too narrow an outlook by half. Syria may be in the throes of a civil conflict that has not reached a full-fledged civil war. But it makes little sense to reduce the country’s condition to a simplistic narrative of the Assads against the rest. The Alawites from the start have viewed the conflict as a test for communal survival, as have other minorities; and the regime’s crimes have gradually compelled many in the opposition to withdraw to their sectarian identity, even if there are those profoundly reluctant to do so. To simply wish away the civil and social dimensions of the struggle is to set oneself up for bad surprises in the future, when Syria will have to rebuild.
For example, is it in any way sensible to assume that the day after the Assads’ collapse, Syria will rediscover its equilibrium and regain its mislaid unity? Centrifugal impulses have been released, and they are exceptionally potent. Even if Bashar Assad were to flee Damascus tomorrow, a triumphant opposition would face an armed Alawite community seeking greater autonomy in a new Syria. Without doubt the Kurds would refuse to revert to their marginalized status of the past, and would demand some form of self-rule as well. Syria will not soon return to where it was in February 2011, if it ever does.
These are matters that have fundamentally civil consequences, by going to the heart of national identity and cohesion. Syria could fall short of what Lebanon went through during its civil war, as Iraq did. But that does not mean that we have the luxury of engaging in a misdiagnosis. Whether it is the diplomats or the nongovernmental organizations, or above all the Syrian population, all will one day need to collaborate in repairing a fractured and alienated society.
Maybe that is what the Assads wanted. They and their homicidal, kleptocratic clique merit the worst fate. But 15 months into Syria’s revolt, Syrian society is in a very different place than where it once was. Profound rifts have opened up, and they will have to be closed with sensibility and precision. If acknowledging the reality of civil war can help do so, then so be it. A definition should not hold us up.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.