Call it by its name: Syrian Civil War 2011-20XX
PINAR TREMBLEYIt was the beginning of a warm summer when I started referring to it as the Syrian civil war. Friends shrugged their shoulders and raised their eyebrows in doubt. One even hissed at me, saying, “Since when do constructivists make predictions?” While saving the lengthy lecture on international relations theory to my students, I would like to clarify a few points as I see them from the shores of the Pacific.
I called it a civil war so early on because of some specific features of the country. For me the most significant difference between a Syrian and an Egyptian or Tunisian is not the Arabic dialect they speak, but the level of fear in Syrian eyes.
I have observed that Syrians are the most reserved people of the Levant when talking about their domestic politics. They will not utter the names of the Holy Trinity (Hafez, Bashar, and Basil or Maher al-Assad) without the proper checks for security.
This is a country where a political “criminal” can easily have his prison term extended for offending the holy trinity; mind you this person is in solitary confinement. The threats to the regime have always been high: kalam en nas and mukhabarat ensure that.
It was very difficult for me to believe in the power of civilians to organize protests. I watched several videos of men, women and children screaming for Bashar to leave. Personally, I had mixed feelings of disbelief and hope. I could not help but ask how all these reserved people organized themselves quickly. Then I looked at the map and began marking the locations where the first “uprisings” happened.
I also had to ponder how these “peaceful protestors” could inflict deaths upon the Syrian authorities. Seeing the Hezbollah militia and Iranian snipers on roofs signaled the seriousness of the situation. These were not isolated events, but they were not country-wide uprisings either. If maps are encrypted love letters, the maps of the Syrian uprising gave cues to the beginning of a very frightening affair.
I should pay my respects to political science. Comparativists have done us a great service by dissecting the causes of civil war across time and space. Disconnected lands, with neighbors who have experienced civil war, youth booms, economic disparity, or ethnic and sectarian heterogeneity all affect the probability of civil war.
“Syria has been in Lebanon for years, and now it is becoming Lebanon,” a friend told me in tears over the phone. “It is the curse of Lebanon,” she said. I am not able to analyze curses, but Lebanon has surely affected Syria’s relations with the Saudis. All attempts by the al-Assad family to rebuild bridges with the Saudi Kingdom have been in vain since the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafic al-Hariri, a Saudi citizen. Today’s events have their roots in the unresolved issues of the early 2000s; yes Syria pulled out of Lebanon, but that was not sufficient. This vengeance pushed Syria’s dependence on Iran and Russia deeper.
Syria had tried to reach out to the West to break loose of its isolation even under Hafez al-Assad. Remember the Madrid meeting and the Syrian involvement in the first Gulf War, as well as Syrian assistance to the U.S. in the war against terror; its changing relations with Turkey and its attempts to generate some sort of resolution for the Golan Heights with Israel. I do not claim Syria was ever a democracy or a peaceful nation by any means; however, they have made attempts to diversify in order to “normalize” their relations with the West, while still continuing their intricate relations with a variety of armed non-state actors under their jurisdiction.
Last but not least, some friends are bad for you. Iranian and Russian “friendship” has been as deadly for Syria as the Saudi vengeance. These relations have disturbed the precarious equilibrium Syria had been struggling to maintain for decades. How many generations will it take for Syria to settle into a stable system, if it remains unified after the al-Assad family departs (and sooner or later they will)?
It is fair to say the worst is not over in Syria. It will take at least five years to end this civil war.
However, we cannot help to resolve the situation unless we understand it and are able to classify it correctly. Civil wars are high-intensity conflicts fought between two or more groups; these are non-state or para-state militias and regular forces. When we call it by its name, civil war, we all will be better able to explain that foreign interventions are working at full speed. These are only the beginning stages.
One fact remains: No civil war has ever been ended by more weapons. The devil may be in turning the question on its head, and asking why some pundits refrain from referring to it as a civil war. Here is a humble suggestion: Call it by its real name first, and then seek solutions.
Pınar Trembley is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).