More than fifteen months have passed since the first shots were fired in Syria and, here we are, still trying to define whether what’s going on there today is a war, a civil war or “just” a conflict. According to some estimates, more than 16,000 people have already been killed and, with no solution in sight, this number will inevitably continue its upward trend.
After Syrian insurgents recently assaulted a Republican Guard base in Damascus, a few miles from the presidential palace, even President Bashar al-Assad announced in remarks to his cabinet that “we live in a state of war.” He added “all our policies, directives and all sectors will be set in motion in order to gain victory in this war.”
Of course, Assad used the term “war” for his own purposes – to justify and legitimize his regime’s accelerating use of brute force in an attempt to quell an uprising that is threatening to unclench his grip on power. At the same time, the Syrian leader has actually refrained from using the phrase “civil war” to characterize the current situation so as to create the impression that his regime enjoys the support of all its citizens.
Assad’s definitions aside – it’s really irrelevant what he chooses to call it – the world needs to acknowledge that Syria is and has been for many months now in a state of war – civil war. And having done so, the world needs to re-double its efforts to figure out what the international community, regional actors and domestic players can and should do to effectively put an end to the ongoing bloodshed.
According to some definitions, a conflict becomes a civil war when it entails the deaths of between 100 to 1,000 people who are aligned either with a government or opposition groups that may or may not be armed. Syria easily fits that definition.
The conflict is primarily between the government on the one hand and nonviolent demonstrators and other groups like the Free Syrian Army on the other. When looking at the developments in Syria, two facts become clear:
1) The majority of the Syrian people will not be forced into submission by the brute force used by the regime. They will brave the bullets and guns, they will sacrifice their lives rather than continue being subjugated, dehumanized, humiliated, pauperized and treated as objects rather than humans. The harder the regime attempts to stay in power, the greater the determination of Syrian people will be to fight for their ultimate goal – a more democratic and representative system of governance.
2) The government in Damascus has formidable allies who continue to support Assad’s regime, emboldening and empowering him to carry on his crackdown against the opposition. These allies have done so for over 15 months. The Syrian regime continues to be adamant about not making concessions and not retreating from its current position. It continues to use the “sovereignty” card in order to control dissident forces. Although concerted diplomatic efforts led to the unanimous passage of U.N. Security Council resolutions 2042 and 2043 on the establishment of a U.N. monitoring mission in Syria and the implementation of Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point, Assad’s government has yet to comply. The U.N. Security Council resolutions recommended neither military intervention nor the removal of the Bashar al-Assad from power. In concert with an earlier Arab League peace plan it urged both the Syrian government and the opposition “to work in good faith with the envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis.”
Kofi Annan’s six-point plan included a “daily two-hour humanitarian pause” in the fighting, and the opening of “an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.” It urged the Syrian regime to allow journalists to report freely in Syria, to release political detainees, to “immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in population centers, and to begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers.”
Many analysts have compared the civil war in Syria to the conflict in Iraq, but it is crucial to know that civil war in Syria bears a different character than the one in Iraq and that it would be more destructive in terms of human lives lost and regional instability.
Because of the complexity of the social, religious and ethnic fabric of Syrian society, the civil war is likely not to take only one dimension. For example, it is not only a civil war between different religious sects as we saw in Iraq – Sunni versus Shia. In the case of Syria it is not just Alawite versus Sunni. The civil war there takes on religious and ethnic dimensions. The religious sects are not only Alawite and Sunni; there are Christians, Druze and Shia. Tensions between different ethnicities, Arab and non-Arab (Kurds and Druze), add fuel to the fire. For instance, in Syria, there are Kurds who are Sunni but there are also Kurds who are Alawites. Under this scenario, any ethnic or religious groups which do not participate in the war and do not take sides would be considered traitors and would not be left alone secure. This would also have a disastrous impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrian children, women and men.
Although Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have taken almost identical positions when speaking of the danger of an escalation of civil war in the case of Assad’s ouster, they have different concerns and objectives with regard to this issue. Sharing borders with Syria and having lived through civil wars themselves, Iraq and Lebanon are understandably worried about the spill-over of the instability and Syria’s civil war onto their territories.
Then, there is Iran. For the Islamic Republic the civil war in Syria means losing an allied centralized government and strategically important country in the region. Therefore, civil war in Syria will have a considerable impact on the balance of power between Iran and Arab countries of the region, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Iraq and Lebanon have refrained from calling for Assad’s removal from power. Lebanon also abstained from voting when the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in the organization.
Iraq’s concerns were reflected in its prime minister’s remarks that “the killing or removal of President Bashar in any way will explode into an internal struggle between two groups and this will have an impact on the region.”
Despite ongoing efforts, the situation in Syria is at a diplomatic impasse due to a domestic, regional and international stalemate, unwavering support of the Assad regime by countries such as Russia and China, as well as due to the continued military, economic, intelligence and moral support Damascus receives from its strongest ally in the region, Iran.
If the current impasse continues and as long as Moscow and Beijing reject any proposals to take a strong position against the Syrian regime’s use of brutal force, Syria will become increasingly isolated. And that will inevitably heighten the intensity of the already raging civil war, and primarily hurt and endanger the lives of innocent civilians.
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Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-Syrian, is a scholar, policy analyst and human rights activist. He came the United States on a Fulbright teaching scholarship and taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also a contributing editor for Harvard International Review. Formerly, he conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and participated in the National Council on US-Arab relations’ program.