In the past five years, Syria has become many things: a refugee crisis, a regional quagmire, a western nightmare, a terrorist haven, a Russian power play and the core of Iran’s ambitions. To the international community, however, it’s a civil war. The United Nations, Western governments, media and European Union all refer to the Syrian conflict this way. In December 2015, Secretary of State John F. Kerry emphasized the need to “end the nation’s civil war.” In September this year, the New York Times published a long explainer on the conflict, answering, among other questions, “What is the Syrian civil war?”
These simplifications are inaccurate and dangerous. They absolve the international community of responsibility, and give Bashar al-Assad a veneer of legitimacy. They liberate Russia and Iran — actively involved with troops in the conflict — from culpability. And they allow internal terrorist groups to justify their involvement and violence.
There is no doubt that civil war is one of the many layers of the Syrian conflict. Local factions are fighting each other. In truth though, this is a war on the people of Syria, carried out by the Assad regime and his allies.
We see that in the violence. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Assad’s forces have killed 95 percent of Syrian victims. Additionally, Assad controls the army, including tanks, planes and barrel bombs. He has shelled areas that witnessed peaceful protests. Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. He controls the intelligence, security and military apparatus that have diligently and systematically worked since 2011 to arrest, torture and kill all nonviolent activists.
Assad also released dangerous Islamists from prison and allowed them to organize and build armed groups. He did this not by accident, but as a part of a strategy to create a civil war and radicalize what remained of the revolution. His strategy has been to shift the narrative from reform to sectarianism by emphasizing Islamic terrorism, thereby presenting himself as a partner in the global war on terror.
It’s also hard to square the civil war claim with the vast amount of external interference. Faced with a strong resistance from the armed opposition groups, Assad allowed both Iran and Russia in to help him and his regime survive. In fact, Assad’s army is barely fighting today. The fighting force on the ground is mostly Shiite militias, with some Syrian Arab Army battalions — all reporting to Hezbollah and the IRGC and aided by Russian air bombing. Without Iran and Russia, Assad would have been long gone.
How can we call this conflict a civil war when the Syrian opposition is rarely fighting Syrian loyalists and instead battling with foreign fighters in its own country? Is it a civil war when all of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States, and other assorted NATO nations are involved in one way or another?
Calling it a civil war has serious implications on policy. It protects Assad. Assad may be an obnoxious dictator, the logic goes, but a stabilizing one. It also gives the impression that this is an internal conflict, allowing Western powers and international organizations not to take sides. As a result of this inaction, the world witnessed the exodus of Syrian refugees, the castration of U.S. efforts by Russia and Iran and terrorist attacks in European cities.
Equating the killer with the victim has a moral challenge that eventually legitimizes the regime’s crimes against humanity. It also subdues the modern history of Syria that brought Hafez al-Assad to power where the Baath Party and eventually the ruling family refused to allow anyone else in Syria to participate in politics. This regime has always resorted to military solutions and has never chosen negotiations over violence. Today, with Iran commanding the battles in Syria and Russia negotiating with the international community on the future of Syria, what is left of the regime is an image that is only needed to preserve other states’ interest.
This is not a civil war. Only when we stop calling it a civil war, we might be able to understand the history and strategy of the regime, the various layers of the Syrian people, the interests of those who are already intervening, and the significance of accountability.