Civil war in Syria, by definition

Bird Dog's picture

At the Monkey Cage, Erica Chenoweth is making the call.

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 Sambanisthorough 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.

Pakistan would fall under that criteria as well. The unrest in Syria has been ongoing for nearly a year, and there are no signs of it letting up. There are also no signs of Assad loosening his grip.



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It's not a civil war

HankP's picture

civil war requires that the opposition to the government have some kind of political and military organization, in other words some sort of organization or alliance that can take over the functions of government if they defeat the government forces militarily. I haven't seen any evidence of that in Syria or Pakistan.

I blame it all on the Internet


Bird Dog's picture

That would be your personal definition. Small and Singer would disagree. So would Sambanis. But what would some ignorant hack PhD from Yale know.


"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

Everyone has a personal definition

HankP's picture

and Sambanis would not disagree, from pg 829 -


(b) The parties are politically and militarily organized, and they have publicly stated political objectives


I don't see that on the anti-government side yet.

I blame it all on the Internet

Au contraire

Bird Dog's picture

There is a burgeoning and organized armed and political resistance. Not well organized, but that's not easy to do in dictatorial regimes. The most notable armed resistance is the Free Syrian Army. There are several political opposition groups, but they have not yet unified into a single force (link).

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

That's what I mean

HankP's picture

there are plenty of groups, armed and not, but no organization between them (as far as I can tell). What's going on there is closer to anarchy than a civil war. But don't worry, given time I'm sure it will be a civil war by any definition - just not yet.

I blame it all on the Internet

To add to the diary

mmghosh's picture

I met a personal friend (professional, upper middle class) last week who had just left Syria, and more generally the ME to return home, citing instability, work issues etc.  He plans to return to the Gulf if the situation stabilises.  Apparently the word from the ground is that the regime in Syria has enough support left in it, and is not going to undergo a Egypt, or even Libya type showdown anytime soon.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency