We do not speak about the French Civil War of 1789 or the American Civil War of 1776. When armed thugs of the Mubarak regime attacked peaceful demonstrators recently in Tahrir Square, no one called it the Egyptian Civil War. It would be equally wrong to call the conflict in Libya a “civil war.”

It is, in fact, a popular uprising or revolution that began peacefully like the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Moammar Gaddafi has turned it into a war against his own people.

Gaddafi knows this — and he knows that how that war is characterized is important. Scholars generally define civil war as a conflict between organized groups within a country that aim to take power at the center or in a region. Legal definitions are similar. So when Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam refer to a “civil war,” they understand that this description equates the two sides in the conflict and strengthens the argument against intervention on behalf of the opposition.

How can the international community be sure that this is not a war between two groups that both enjoy broad support, and that a rebel victory might simply reverse the roles of oppressor and oppressed? Simply put, we can’t. We don’t know the loyalties of people in regime-controlled cities, including Tripoli. Journalists have no unrestricted access to the population. Consider the treatment of Iman al-Obeidi, the Libyan woman who recently described how she was detained by Gaddafi’s forces and gang-raped. When she tried to speak with journalists in a Tripoli hotel, she was physically dragged away — just one demonstration of how thoroughly the regime restricts journalists’ access to Libyans. The obviously staged encounters that are permitted — with ever-present government minders coaching people on what to say — are another indication of the difficulty of knowing what Libyans in regime-controlled areas think.

Even if access were not so restricted, it would be hard to know Libyans’ true opinions because they have been living under a regime-imposed blanket of fear for four decades. That fear has intensified with the uprisings as informers go through neighborhoods to identify participants in demonstrations for pickup by the feared “Revolutionary Committees.” Some of those taken away never return; others return to tell horrific stories of the tortures that await those who are detained. Most terrifying of all is the regime’s practice of cracking down on family members of activists. As one Libyan in Tripoli, with his face hidden, recently told al-Jazeera, “Those who spoke up had their families harassed. So they fear for their families more than for themselves.”

Despite the difficulties of assessing public sentiment in Libya, the international community must keep a few fundamental points in mind: A regime that enjoyed genuine loyalty from its people would not have to terrorize them. Nor would it depend so heavily on foreign mercenaries and hired militias to do its fighting. Yet while popular opinion is almost certainly against the regime, the balance of military power favors it.

Much could be done now to shift that balance against the regime — and hasten the end of Gaddafi’s massacres — without escalating foreign military involvement and perhaps even without supplying weapons to the opposition. Officially recognizing the Interim Transitional National Council would signal clearly that the United States and others have taken sides and that the Gaddafi regime is doomed. That simple, powerful message would encourage defections from the regime that could hasten the end of the conflict. And the United States could assist the council in the crucial communications battle by getting satellite providers to stop carrying Libyan State Television (or by jamming it directly) and helping the opposition to establish its ownbroadcasting capability. We could assist Libyans throughout the country in communicating to the outside world in ways that could not be monitored by the regime, such as providing communications gear to opposition fighters that would free them from dependence on the regime-controlled cellphone network.

By embracing the Interim Transitional National Council we could help set in motion a process that would provide the only true expression of the loyalties of the Libyan people: free elections. The council’s recently published “Vision of a Democratic Libya” lays out an eight-point plan that guarantees basic political and human rights “regardless of colour, gender, ethnicity or social status”; that “condemns intolerance, extremism and violence”; and that provides for an elected government with separation of powers.

So far, it is only a piece of paper, but international recognition could help make it something more than that and pave the way for a post-Gaddafi Libya in which differences are decided not by wars of any kind but by democratic processes, including peaceful demonstrations.

Paul Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was deputy secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005.