What a Syrian Civil War Means for the U.S.

Why labeling Assad's crackdown on protesters a "civil war" would prove disastrous for U.S. policy.

According to the United Nations, the death toll in Syria has exceeded three thousand people, roughly one-third of which the Syrian government claims are its own security forces.

If you take that number in isolation, it already has tripled the one thousand deaths per year that is used by most academic scholars as an indicator of civil war. And we still have five months to go before we reach the one-year mark.

So is it time for us to view and treat the domestic unrest in Syria as a civil war?

There are no easy answers to that question, and analysts will surely disagree. One could argue that the Syrian violence is not a civil war but a scenario in which a national government is applying lethal repression against a largely unarmed protest movement—in other words, a one-sided massacre. There is some armed resistance on the part of elements within the protest movement, but it is not systematic, and it has more than one source. Some of that resistance is impulsive and in self-defense, performed by ordinary citizens and village folks whose families and livelihoods have been threatened or destroyed. Some is opportunistic, carried out by unknown militants who are exploiting the turmoil. Some is more organized and undertaken by officers who have defected from the Syrian army to form the Free Officers Corps and the Free Syrian Army.

The bottom line is that there isn’t a well-defined, organized opposing faction taking on the Syrian regime. And, so long as there is no “rebel or insurgent movement” actively resisting the Syrian government’s security services, it is difficult to speak of a civil war.

But why does it matter so much how we label events in Syria?

It matters because how the international community (civil societies, world publics, news agencies) views events in Syria has real-world consequences for U.S. and Western policy. Ideally, actual facts and events on the ground should drive U.S. policy on Syria. But in reality, policy is almost always under the influence of numerous external factors that hamper rational decision-making and consequently impede the national interest. Should a global consensus on a Syrian civil war emerge, Washington and NATO could face intense pressure to “do something” and forcefully intervene in Syria. All it takes is a study or two by respected think tanks in Washington, testimony by a well-known analyst or former diplomat on Capitol Hill, or a careless statement or quote by a "U.S. official" saying that civil war is taking place in Syria, and things will spiral out of control.

This would be bad for U.S. national-security policy. Momentous decisions such as military intervention in another Middle Eastern country should not be formulated in response to popular pressure. U.S. or NATO military intervention in Syria—Libya-style or otherwise—is fraught with numerous uncertainties and dangers, and it carries tremendous risks of regional war. It will be an extremely difficult decision. Therefore the last thing President Obama and his national-security team need is distraction or pressure from anxious or angry world governments and publics.

The variables associated with U.S. or NATO military intervention in Syria need to be analyzed carefully. The world may be undecided now about how it should describe the unrest in Syria, but as violence increases, the death toll rises and an organized and well-defined insurgent/rebel movement forms, labels of civil war will start appearing on CNN, Al Jazeera and other global media outlets. The United States will then have to either ignore fervent calls for intervention or respond prematurely, without any clear plan or defined goals. The time to seriously think through the military option in Syria is now.

Bilal Y. Saab is Visiting Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.