On revolution and civil war in Syria

On the ethics of names

As Syrians around the world mark the ninth anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian uprising, how important are the names and labels we use to describe the events happening in the country since 2011?

18 March 2020

Housamedden Darwish

Academic and researcher in Western philosophy and Arabo-Islamic thought.

There have been various labels given to the events that broke out in Syria in 2011. “Revolution” and “civil war” are perhaps the most popular of them all. But as rare as it is for the two sides to agree, both supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime refuse to describe those events as a “civil war.”

While most regime supporters talk about an “all-encompassing conspiracy against Syria” and their “war on terrorism,” most of its opponents prefer the term, “popular revolution.” At the same time, some in the opposition believe that reality dictates that we should admit that the conflict in Syria is a sectarian civil war par excellence, and that there is no point in denying it.

So to what extent can we describe the Syrian crisis as either a revolution or civil war?

In the studies of war, the conventional notion of civil war defines it as an “ongoing internal military conflict resulting in the killing of no less than a thousand people in the battlefield yearly, and where central government forces clash with a rebellious force capable of causing losses in the ranks of government forces equivalent to five percent more than the losses in its own ranks."

Based on this definition, there are three main criteria distinguishing a civil war from other types of violent confrontations: its internality, participants and degree of effective resistance.

According to the first point, military confrontation should first take place within a state in order for it to be classified as a civil war. This clearly applies to Syria. Although the confrontations spilled over to Lebanon at some point, through the fight between Hezbollah and some opposition forces, the conflict was mostly localised within Syria. That said, the battles with the Islamic State (IS) and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) were an extension of a military fight that first began in Afghanistan and Iraq between Al-Qaeda and western force—and so the conflict lost its purely local character later on.

The second point finds that central governmental forces should be party to the internal military confrontation. This is an essential point, but one missing from the general understanding of the notion of civil war, which dictates that for a war to be a civil war, citizens must be fighting one another, while central government should be absent. In 2016, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm denied allegations that the Syrian conflict was a “generalised civil war,” explaining his view by comparing Syria to the Lebanese and Iraqi civil wars. He said that both wars were sectarian, and central government was almost totally absent from both.

However, based on the second point, and unlike the popular understanding of Azm, internal military conflict is not a “civil war” unless the state is party to that conflict.

At first look, this seems to apply to the Syrian narrative since central governmental forces participated in the conflict to a large extent.

Still, the government was almost completely absent from an important part of the confrontation: the war on IS launched by the US-led international coalition formed of 73 states, as well as the conflict between Turkish forces and the Turkish-backed rebels from the Syrian National Army on the one hand, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.

This foreign participation or absence of central government, whether voluntary or forced, indicates that this point can distinguish this war from the other types of internal armed clashes—like sectarian or communal violence, or an internal war with regional reach. The involvement or intervention of foreign forces in a civil war means that the nature and classification of this internal armed confrontation will change. Foreign intervention can turn a civil war into an internationalised civil war, a proxy war, a war between states, or even a world war.

A civil war becomes an internationalised civil war when a foreign force intervenes and tips the balance in favour of central government forces. Obviously, Syria became more of an internationalised civil war after 2014 following Russia’s large-scale and decisive intervention. And we could discuss this internationalisation even more if we were to also consider the active role that Iran has taken in the conflict over the years.

An internal armed conflict is classified as a war between states when a foreign state makes a direct military intervention in favour of the opposition or forces rebelling against the central government. The US and its hand in the creation of the SDF, as well as the Turkish intervention and vast support to Syrian opposition groups, indicates that part of the war in Syria was an interstate war.

A proxy war, on the other hand, breaks out when regional or international forces support, sponsor and control the local fighting forces on the ground. Clearly, part of the war in Syria could be classified as a proxy war in light of the Turkish, American, Qatari and Saudi roles vis-a-vis the Syrian opposition, as well as the roles of Russia and Iran on the pro-government side.

Additionally, part of the war in Syria could be considered an international or even world war, given that 73 states make up the US-led international coalition while militants from over 80 nationalities fought with IS militias and more than 30,000 foreign fighters from 70 countries also travelled to Syria to fight for different groups, according to Christopher Phillips’ 2016 book The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East.

The third point—effective resistance—sets apart a civil war from a massacre, pogrom, purge or slaughter, which a government commits against powerless people who have no ability to respond to the violence being inflicted upon them.

For effective resistance to take place, the weaker party must have the capacity to resist effectively against the stronger party, causing it losses of at least 5 percent of the losses incurred by the stronger party. Although effective resistance does not mention equal force between the parties to the conflict, armed opposition groups are unlikely to have effective resistance, when the central government forces own and use ballistic missiles, chemical weapons and warplanes. This imbalance in military power between the central government forces and the armed opposition has often turned the confrontation into a slaughter or massacre rather than a civil war.

Based on the above criteria, it seems legitimate to doubt the notion that Syria is merely a civil war, a commonly repeated phrase during the years of fighting.

Many have underlined the need to be pragmatic and admit that what has plagued Syria since 2011 is a civil war. But, doubting this classification does not stem from denialism in some Freudian sense. It is rather grounded in knowledge-based, methodological ways of thinking. Regardless of whether the Syrian case is a “civil war,” it is important to underline that it is not only that. It is also a proxy war, an international war, an organised slaughter as well as a massacre—all at the same time.

All the above notions are steeped in ethical concepts that go beyond mere description and should necessarily include some form of evaluation. As the two most popular labels used to describe the Syrian situation are “civil war” and “revolution,” I will compare their intrinsic normative dimensions to show why it’s important when attributing names and labels to something.

The term "civil war” generally carries negative connotations, and it shows what we should probably avoid the term at all costs. A revolution has a good reputation generally, since it heralds positive radical change and/or a real, effective quest to make that change. In Syria (at least before the revolution), calling a certain event a revolution was enough proof that we saw it from a positive angle. Therefore, most putschists in the contemporary history of Syria were careful to dub their “coups” as revolutions. The March 1963 Revolution is perhaps the best example of this. For this reason specifically, the regime and its media absolutely refused to call the 2011 events in Syria a revolution.

War studies tend to ignore the actual aims behind an armed conflict—especially in so-called civil wars—and they do not differentiate between the parties in the conflict in terms of legitimacy. These studies that do not care (all that much) if the political system is democratic or otherwise, preferring to view issues in terms of the seizure of power rather than freedom, dignity, democracy and liberation from tyranny.

The political concept of a revolution in general, and in a Syrian (or other tyrannical) context in particular, distinguishes between two parties—the rightful and the oppressed, and the oppressor who lacks legitimacy (through democracy). In a nutshell, the notion of a civil war equates two parties that are not equal, and that should not be equated in the first place. In a major research on civil wars, Stathis N. Kalyvas noted that a civil war is a “controversial phenomenon…because this term can grant or negate legitimacy to one of the combating parties."

A civil war implicates that negotiations between the fighting parties must aim, first and foremost, to restore peace and reach an agreement.

In such a context, issues of democracy, freedom, dignity, punishment of the perpetrators and ensuring justice for the victims do not matter all that much. However, a revolution against an oppressive regime necessarily implicates regime change and achieving not only peace, but also justice, because it is an end in itself and a main condition for restoring peace.

Describing the Syrian events as a war or civil war disregards, deliberately or unintentionally, the protests and civil uprising that Syrians opposing the Assad regime carried out before, during and after the armed confrontation with that regime. This action prevailed in Syria until mid-2012 at least and continued for a long time after that, even though it fluctuated in strength.

There is a sense of responsibility in using words, one that we should remember in the future. It is important to focus on the underlying notions of these descriptions and to try, as much as possible, to be objective in describing events.

English philosopher John Austin said it best in his famous book “How to Do Things with Words,” which was translated into French as quand dire, c’est faire.

When actions involve victims, killers and dire human suffering, the need for the responsibility in choosing one’s words fairly and objectively becomes essential.

In the absence of such a commitment, our words only “add insult to injury.”

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