Day: June 13, 2012

What does civil war meme?

Yesterday UN peacekeeping under secretary general Herve Ladsous suggested that Syria is indeed in a civil war:

Yes, I think we can say that. Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control.

The Syrian government denies it, insisting that its operations are aimed at suppressing terrorists.

What is the significance of the “civil war” meme?  The conflict in Syria appears to meet the formal definition of civil war:

a violent conflict within a country fought by organized groups that aim to take power at the center or in a region, or to change government policies

There may be some doubt as to how “organized” the Free Syria Army really is, but it seems, as Ladsous suggested, to be organized enough to control at least some territory.  The Syria conflict certainly meets the threshold of 1000 casualties the academics require to label a conflict “war.”

The Syrian government prefers the counter-terrorism meme because it puts the conflict in a context that justifies vigorous state action.  President Obama abandoned the “war on terror” metaphor long ago, but it continues to fight extremism with all the means at its disposal.  Why shouldn’t Bashar al Assad do likewise?

If the conflict in Syria is a civil war, it does not follow that international intervention is appropriate.  The United Nations will generally avoid engagement in such situations until the “warring parties” offer their consent.  Consent in Syria so far is certainly nominal:  the government allows the UN observers in and permits them to move around a bit, but it has not implemented the six-point Annan plan.  The Free Syria Army has renounced the ceasefire that never really took effect.

During the Bosnian conflict, the label “civil war” was used mainly by those who opposed international intervention.  While intervention in civil wars by neighbors, super powers and other interested parties has often occurred, in the American political lexicon “civil war” has usually been used to justify a wait and see attitude.  If they are fighting among themselves, why should we get involved?  It’s dangerous and potentially counterproductive if we prolong a conflict that might just burn itself out.

The meme that works in favor of intervention in the U.S. is a liberation meme, provided the government of the country in which the conflict occurs is not a friendly one.  The Kosovo Liberation Army was an example, as was the NATO-led intervention in favor of the Libyan National Transitional Council.  Not for nothing was the war in Iraq termed Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Free Syria Army would like to be seen as part of such a liberation meme.  So far, that has not gotten it direct American assistance.  But yesterday’s revelation that Russia is providing attack helicopters to the Syrian army will likely open the spigot of clandestine transfers by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Free Syria Army a bit wider.

That won’t necessarily bring an end to a war that already threatens to destabilize Lebanon and in due course other neighbors.  International intervention can lengthen and spread wars, whether they be termed anti-terrorist, civil or liberation.

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