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The Syrian Conflict is Already a Civil War

- January 15, 2012

The headline of Anthony Shadid’s article in Sunday’s New York Times reads “Fear of Civil War Mounts in Syria as Crisis Deepens.” The Arab League’s Secretary General, Nabil el-Araby, is quoted as saying “I fear a civil war, and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war.” Others concur, while stopping short of saying that Syria is currently in a state of civil war.

But by most standards, the conflict in Syria has been a civil war for quite awhile (see, for instance, Nicholas Sambanis‘ thorough analysis of civil war’s competing definitions). Although there is some controversy surrounding the definition, scholars typically consider a conflict a civil war when:

  • two or more armed groups are fighting within state borders over some incompatibility (change of leadership/government, territory, or major policy issue);
  • one of the combatant groups is the government;
  • at least 1,000 people have died due to combat; and
  • at least 100 people have died on either side of the conflict.

Some people add that the armed combatants must be organized, or possess an internal military structure, although this is not central to all definitions. Others reduce the necessary threshold of fatalities, thus admitting lower-intensity conflicts to the list of “intra-state armed conflicts” in general.

Regardless, the Syrian conflict clearly meets all of these criteria–in fact, the conflict probably crossed these thresholds sometime last summer. Since July (maybe earlier), there have been at least two organized armed groups fighting over the center. The incumbent government is clearly one of the combatants, with the Free Syrian Army (and maybe some other armed militias) prosecuting the conflict against it. With thousands of Syrians killed, including up to 2,000 regime loyalists, the casualty figures are straightforward–assuming these figures are accurate. All of this has unfolded within a relatively short time span, indicating a level of conflict intensity that is on par with other “typical” civil wars.

By the way, the seeming reluctance to call the Syrian conflict a civil war reminds me of a similar debate that occurred in 2006, when Iraqi and Coalition officials denied that Iraq had fallen into a civil war. The facts on the ground elicited a compelling op-ed and article by James Fearon, who pretty much established that Iraq was in the midst of a civil war–a pretty bad one, too. (In fact, I should mention that James Fearon is the one who first raised the question of Syria’s civil war status during a conversation we had a number of weeks ago).

One issue, of course, is “who declares” a civil war. I suppose this thankless task is often left to the academics who count them. So, we can add another one to the list. Despite denials, the Syrian Civil War is already well underway.