A front page story in yesterday’s New York Times quoted Hervé Ladsous, the head of United Nations peacekeeping operations, opining that the violence in Syria had descended into “civil war.” The same story, however, points out that “opposition leaders are wary of the term civil war because it suggests that the conflict is somehow an even match”; meanwhile, the Assad regime is still holding fast to its story that the violence is nothing more than the product of terrorists.
So, which is it? Is Syria in a civil war or not?
The answer, it turns out, is maybe. According to Gary Solis, who teaches the law of war at Georgetown, “the problem with civil wars, is that there is no over arching body to say at this point the rules apply. You have this murky middle ground between an insurrectionist group and a civil war.” James Fearon, a professor at Stanford who has written extensively on political violence, tells me that political scientists usually agree that there is a threshold of deaths that qualifies a conflict as a civil war—they just don’t always agree what exactly that threshold is. “Political scientists and sociologists who study civil war tend to use 1,000 killed total as their criterion,” he says. “Either way, the conflict in Syria definitely qualifies and has qualified as a civil war for a while now.” (Fearon does note that one mandatory criterion is that a sufficiently large number of deaths occur on both sides “in order distinguish a civil war from a massacre or genocide.”)
But what’s at stake in designating a conflict as a civil war? The legal implications are murky. One possible outcome is that opposition combatants would fall under the protections of the Geneva Convention. “One hesitates to say with any assurance yes or no, but it could give them a stronger position,” says Solis. “If they were recognized as belligerents, and were recognized at a distance then they would have the rights of prisoners or war if captured.” That said, by Solis’s judgment, the FSA should already qualify for protections under Common Article Three of the Geneva Convention, which covers non-international conflicts.
Ultimately, the most important impact of classifying Syria’s conflict as a “civil war” would be political, by ratcheting up the pressure on the international community to do something. If the rhetoric of civil war gains currency, look for demands for stricter sanctions and more determined resolutions from the U.N. Security Council. In that way, the consistent application of one small phrase could end up leading to one big step in the direction of military intervention.