Small Wars Journal

The Civil War Paradox

Mon, 02/13/2012 - 8:38pm

Editor's Note:  Words matter and perhaps none have more impact on the people of conflict-ridden areas than terms like civil war and genocide.  Does the term "civil war" create a paradox that penalizes rebels that successfully challenge the government?  Beyond the moral issues, readers may tie this argument to other literature about how civil wars end and the impact on the formation and stability of states.

Last year, President Obama dispatched U.S. forces to Uganda in an effort to remove the Lord Resistance Army’s Joseph Kony. In making the call to deploy troops, the president cited the LRA’s use of murder, rape, and kidnappings in the region. But he avoided characterizing the conflict as a civil war. Similarly, when the president authorized a no-fly zone over Libya last March, he promised to end Qaddafi’s “40 years of tyranny” and suggested that Benghazi was on the verge of a “massacre” that “would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful –- yet fragile -– transitions in Egypt and Tunisia” if the West did not intervene. But he did not describe Libya as a civil war in the making.  

Despite the fact that civil wars now account for nearly half of all armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War, the term has become a watchword for nonintervention. Just as describing a massacre as a genocide raises the onus on the international community to act, calling a conflict a civil war accomplishes exactly the opposite, absolving the outside world of the responsibility of intervening. A case in point is present-day Syria or Sudan. Moreover, the phrase plays to our archaic notions of sovereignty, whereby borders are sacrosanct and regime can do as they please. Worse, the label conjures up an image of a bloody protracted conflict pitting bands of rebels against security forces. Its usage may lead to sanctions or boycotts, but rarely military intervention.


A War By Any Other Name

Civil wars have always been a subject of semantic confusion among scholars and policymakers alike. It is not always clear where the demarcations lines between an insurgency, an armed insurrection, revolution, or a civil war should be drawn, as the distinction between them is often fuzzy: The database most scholars use to classify civil wars, for example, includes the 1989 revolution in Romania and 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran as civil wars. Generally a civil war refers to any internal conflict between two ore more armed sides, of which one is the central authority. This distinguishes it from a communal riot, a terrorist campaign, or a genocide. There are disagreements over the fatality threshold that must be met, but most scholars classify a civil war as surpassing 1,000 deaths in any given year. Increasingly these types of wars are fought in the lawless border regions of states, away from the public eye. One can sip tea in Istanbul or coffee in Bogota and have no clue the country’s periphery was embroiled in civil war, aside from the occasional checkpoint.

Civil wars are mistakenly believed to be wars of attrition that drag on forever, when in fact the average civil war flames out after forty months, compared to over ten years for most insurgencies. Conventional civil wars are also less deadly than insurgencies – an average battle toll of 62,000 deaths per conflict compared to 84,000. Not all civil wars, of course, start out as civil wars – conflicts go through phases. Libya, for example, began as a rebellion – even though its participants, unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, were referred to by the media as rebels, not as protesters – then as an insurgency, then as a civil war, with two clearly defined sides squaring off. Only when Qaddafi’s forces were routed was it declared a revolution, suggesting that outcome (victory versus defeat for rebels), as much as means (armed versus unarmed), matters to the nomenclature of conflict.

This is not a new phenomenon. Germany’s “Peasant War” of the 18th century was depicted as a burgerkrieg and only later entered the history books as a “revolution.” Going even further back, the semantic notion of a group of people overturning of the status quo was an alien concept. As Hannah Arendt noted in On Revolution, “[One] possessed no word which could have characterized a transformation in which the subjects themselves became the rulers.” Reinhart Koselleck writes in Future Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, “[F]or the period to around 1700 we can conclude that the expressions ‘civil war’ and ‘revolution’ were not interchangeable, but were not at the same time mutually exclusive.” Nor was the delineation between interstate and intrastate wars always clear during those pre-Westphalian days. The Thirty Years War is not considered a civil war in the history books, even if that is how it began. It was only ex post facto declared a war between states (Similarly, in modern times, the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea blurred the boundaries between intrastate and interstate war).

“Insurgency,” too, has become a term freighted with rhetorical baggage, as it is associated with its antidote – counterinsurgency, which implies a long, arduous process of nation-building, clearing areas of insurgents, and winning hearts and minds. Such phrases have become anathema to an American public weary after ten years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Consider the dialing back the White House did after Secretary Clinton described the drug cartel violence in Mexico as an insurgency (Although Mexico’s president has hinted the violence there in nearing civil war levels, with over 50,000 fatalities, as a rhetorical device to prod the United States to take more steps to curb demand for drugs and prevent arms from flowing across the border).

In Washington, too often these terminologies become politicized, with policymakers tossing around phrases without fully understanding their contexts or consequences. During the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, the Bush administration refused to describe sectarian violence there as a civil war. American hawks against the withdrawal from Afghanistan warn that the situation there will turn into a civil war if U.S. forces leave. Here the phrase is used as an ultimatum of sorts, to continue a failed U.S. policy, but the term can also be invoked to back a non-interventionist strategy: When former Republican candidate Jon Huntsman told ABC News he favored pulling out of Afghanistan, he admitted this might lead to a security vacuum and potential civil war, but then added: “I’m not sure there’s a whole lot we can do about that.” Yemen, too, is typically described as either a “humanitarian catastrophe” or a “civil war,” depending on if one’s intention is to intervene (“a humanitarian catastrophe” or terrorist safe-haven) or not (“a civil war”).

Aside from Mexico, the leaders of most states engaged in internal armed conflict are loathe to describe it as a civil war. They fear the phrase implies state failure or weakness, which may invite a coup, not to mention that such terminologies confer a kind of legitimacy to the non-state actors they are fighting. That goes in spades for dictatorships like Syria or Libya, whose regimes do not like to admit the level of opposition they face and blame upheaval on the work of foreign terrorists or American intelligence. Yet increasingly outside powers like the United States are either hapless or unwilling to get involved once a conflict escalates into a civil war.

Part of this unwillingness was obviously shaped by events in Somalia in the early 1990s, when U.S. forces intervened to facilitate the delivery of food aid during its civil war. The imbroglio that followed was captured by the infamous “Black Hawk Down” episode, whereby 18 Marines were killed by marauding Somalis, their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That crisis cemented in the public’s imagination the dangers of intervening in a messy, lawless place with no vital U.S. national security interest and with no clear objective or exit strategy. That set the stage for civil wars in Rwanda and elsewhere to proceed without U.S. intervention, leading to countless deaths. The next U.S. intervention would not occur until the mid-1990s in the Balkans, when the slaughter of Muslims there constituted crimes against humanity or worse.


The Syria Puzzle  

The nomenclature of armed conflicts matters, as evidenced by Syria, a country that has presented a puzzle to policymakers and scholars alike. When the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights recently called the nine-month-old uprising there a “civil war,” her purpose was to sound the alarm and prompt the international community into doing more to protect innocent civilians from being slaughtered. She appeared to favor stricter sanctions, more outside monitors, and greater involvement by the International Criminal Court. Yet her clarion call achieved exactly the opposite effect: By presumptively declaring the conflict a civil war, the international community could now afford to sit on the sidelines, even as the bloodbath continued. Describing a conflict as a civil war today is no longer a call to arms, it is a call to inaction.

In fact, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in November that the violence in Syria was beginning to resemble a civil war, some saw it as a gambit to protect Russia's Arab ally from a Libya-style intervention. Secretary of State Clinton later echoed his comments, a statement the State Department has since backtracked from. But does it even matter if Syria is a conventional civil war, an Iranian-style rebellion, or an Afghan-like insurgency? Yes, because if we do not know how to properly classify a conflict, chances are we will not know how or whether to intervene, military or otherwise. By examining the differences between civil wars and insurgencies, we can evaluate the claim that Syria is a quagmire in the making. How we describe conflicts also has important normative and legal implications – the laws of war are different from the laws of armed protests (recall that France called its decades-long conflict in Algeria a “police operation”).

Syria does seem to be heading toward civil war. The success of Libya’s rebels and lack of serious reforms by the Assad regime has pushed segments of the Syrian opposition to take up arms against the state. A handful of soldiers and politicians have defected to the opposition, formed militias and carried out attacks against security forces, including a recent strike against a large military complex outside of Damascus. The so-called Free Syrian Army has been given refuge in Turkey. There is also evidence that outside parties may be abetting the rebels with financing and arms, including even Libya. 

But as of yet, the opposition hardly amounts to a formidable force capable of overturning the regime. They control no territory but operate using what NPR described as an “underground railroad” of sorts. And the violence has been almost completely one-sided. As a State Department official noted correctly to the Christian Science Monitor, “The overwhelming use of force has been taken by Assad and his regime. So there's no kind of equanimity here.” Indeed, the conventional classification of a civil war requires that each side must have sustained at least 10 percent of the casualties – that is not yet the case in Syria. That is not to say that Syria is not heading down that path. The German publication Zeit Online remarked that the city of Homs “now resembles Beirut in the 1980s, divided along ethnic and religious lines where it’s too dangerous for people to travel in a particular direction because they will be shot if they do so.” Or as Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group recently told the New York Times, “I’ve never seen something quite so ominous take shape in the region in 15 years.”

The Assad regime appears to be bracing for a civil war as well. Iran is set to construct a large military base in Latakia, an Alawite stronghold. Russia has reportedly shipped in ammunition and armaments. And Hezbollah has stepped up its denunciation of the opposition as agents of Israel. But Syria’s armed forces remain weak and divided. That was intentional, a legacy of Assad’s paranoid father to prevent a military coup, but as a result, Syria’s army may lack enough repressive capacity to put down a revolution.

Syria is not yet a civil war, but it is a politicide and humanitarian catastrophe in the making. The International Criminal Court has accused the Assad regime of committing crimes against humanity. Over 4,000 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands arrested. Religious minorities such as Christians, to say nothing of Syria’s merchant classes, worry about radical Islamists or retribution by opposition forces if Assad falls. And bursts of sectarian violence perpetrated by so-called shabiha, or Alawite gangs of pro-regime thugs, have been reported in the cities of Homs and Hama. Still, you could wander through the souks of Damascus or Aleppo and have no clue the rest of the country was under siege. Like a revolution, a civil war is often unpredictable. Just days before the violence began last January, President Assad was bragging to a Wall Street Journal reporter that his state was immune to the kind of protests sweeping North Africa.

Support within Syria for international intervention, beyond Arab League inspections or economic sanctions, has only grown. A Free Syrian Army general has called for an international no-fly zone. The Syrian National Council (SNC), an exiled opposition group, has rejected outside intervention but called for “international protection.” And Syria’s diaspora communities have grown more vocal and involved. “I'm actually disappointed that the UN came out and [called it a civil war],” Muna Jondy of the Syrian American Council in Michigan recently told reporters. “This is not a civil war. This is a government killing its own people. It's going to make the rest of the world slower and less inclined to act.” At the same time, international distance from the language of intervention has only grown. Given Moscow’s close ties to Damascus, as well as the regional implications of intervening, Assad knows he is not at risk of being deposed by NATO bombs or U.S. troops anytime soon. Sure, he faces international opprobrium and damage to his reputation as a reformer. But his father weathered similar storms and challenges to his rule by using overwhelming force to put down dissent and was rewarded with several decades of staying power.

A civil war is often held up by outside observers as a worst-case scenario for political violence to take, a precipice from which belligerents cannot return that can have implications beyond a state’s borders. Often, this is the case. Civil wars in West Africa, for example, have typically not remained contained but engulfed the entire region, with refugees fleeing across borders and peacekeepers reluctant to intervene.  But most civil wars do eventually end, though usually with one side victorious, which invariably requires mass casualties, human rights violations, and expulsion of journalists: Sri Lanka provides a cautionary tale. Absent the presence of third-party mediators, scholars find that most civil war belligerents face credible commitment problems and thus cannot reach negotiated settlements. The problem is particularly dire in weak states like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is greater parity between the military capacity of the state and rebel armies. The best predictor of conflict remains past conflict.


Future Nomenclature?

So we have something of a civil war paradox on our hands: A third-party intervention is in the humanitarian interest, but once violence reaches the threshold of a civil war, the default option of the international community is to let things play out and stay on the sidelines – or to “give war a chance,” to borrow a bad expression from the 1990s. Even though the responsibility to protect, or R2P, has emerged as an important international norm, enshrined by Bill Clinton in Bosnia and President Obama in Libya, civil wars generally do not fall under the phrase’s purview, only humanitarian crises that appear to be approaching genocide. Cote d’Ivoire is instructional in this regard. With over a thousand civilians reportedly killed and hundreds of thousands fleeing into neighboring Liberia, the International Crisis Group labeled the post-election violence there a civil war. But there was no Libya-style intervention. The Obama administration took a hands-off approach, and UN peacekeepers appeared loathe to take sides in an internal war and be seen as abetting armed rebels, who might go on to carry out attacks against civilians. Only after French helicopters intervened at the eleventh hour was a bloodbath averted. Similarly, international agencies continue to describe a looming civil war in Southern Sudan, but the reaction from the international community, distracted by the upheavals of North Africa, has been muted at best. NATO forces ostensibly intervened in Libya to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi, not to take sides in a civil war (even though this is exactly what they began to do after the bombing started – arming and training the rebels). As The Economist correctly noted at the time: “[T]he fact Libya is in the midst of a civil war is considered to be something one would mention only if one opposed intervening in it.”

So should we stop labeling conflicts as civil wars, given all their historical baggage and mental stereotypes they conjure up in policymakers’ minds? Maybe find a new term more palatable to humanitarian intervention? Or perhaps raise the classification criteria – the number of fatalities, conditions on the ground, etc. – to label a conflict a civil war? Perhaps these may work, but these types of internal conflicts will not go away just by renaming or reclassifying them. A more effective approach will require greater prevention efforts to mitigate against costly intervention. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in a 2009 article for Foreign Affairs: “[The] U.S. strategy is to employ indirect approaches -- primarily through building the capacity of partner governments and their security forces -- to prevent festering problems from turning into crises that require costly and controversial direct military intervention.” But the United States does not have the luxury, much less diplomatic or military capacity, to go around the world putting out all of the embers before they turn into forest fires. It must rely on regional allies to police neighborhoods (Turkey in the Middle East, India in South Asia, etc.).

The standard for international intervention still remains ad hoc and employed on a case-by-case basis. The United States has only intervened four times to stop humanitarian catastrophes over the past few decades: twice in the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo) and twice in the Arab world (Northern Iraq and Libya). It has stood on the sidelines throughout countless civil wars and other humanitarian crises, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa. As Sudan and Syria appear headed for civil war, a question U.S. policymakers must answer is whether to intervene to prevent mass atrocities. The default option appears to echo James Baker’s famous take on the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s: “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” It would seem the Kantian notion that intervention constitutes a moral duty to save human life flies out the door when those being saved are armed combatants or civilians caught in the crossfire of civil wars. The decision not to intervene in civil wars reflects the resurgence of realism among international affairs scholars, one rooted during the Cold War. As Kenneth Waltz, America’s godfather of realism, noted about U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s, “[T]he revolutionary guerilla wins civil wars, not international ones, and no civil war can change the balance of world power unless it takes place in America or Russia.”

Unfortunately, civil wars are and will be a fact of international life and so their presence cannot be met with indifference, given their ability to spread beyond borders and engulf entire region. The international community cannot afford to stay on the sidelines during civil wars. Otherwise, this will create a moral hazard for regimes like Syria’s that manage to heighten the violence beyond a certain threshold will be unjustly rewarded with the stamp of civil war and given a get-out-of-intervention-free card by the international community. Conversely, rebel armies that decide to take up arms will be unfairly punished for challenging the state more successfully. Hence, this creates perverse incentives for all parties.

That is not to say that an outside intervention is a wise policy in Syria, given its obvious limitations and potentials of backfiring. But in today’s policy parlance, the civil war tag has become an international seal of inaction, effectively raising the bar for any kind of intervention, military or otherwise. Without any kind of intellectual foundation, it’s a sleight of hand. And that is problematic for future peace efforts.

Categories: Syria - civil war

About the Author(s)


Lionel Beehner is a PhD student in political science at Yale University, a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a term member with the Council on Foreign Relations. 


Scott Kinner

Sat, 02/25/2012 - 10:23am

Only in the last paragraph or so do we really come to the issue underlying all talk of intervention - to intervene or not to intervene - and that is moral authority. Moral authority consists of determining not only a "right" to protect, but a "right" to impose a solution, and a "right" to maintain that solution.

Where these "rights" come from, from whom or where they originate, and who determines how and when they are exercised, ought to be the source of some concern. The author points out that there is a calculus here; determining moral authority is neither simple nor obvious.

The West often seems, literally, flabbergasted that the rest of the world doesn't see itself the way the West does, does not measure success the way the West does, does not often view the nature of "life, the universe, and everything," the way the West does - yet the West, by virtue of its position and power, often seems to appoint itself arbiter of moral authority.

The paradox here is bizarre - as the US leaves Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the things that ought to be a by-product of the experience is the realization of how difficult it is to try and change entire cultures and peoples to reflect some pre-determined outcome. As Islamists rise in the wake of the Arab Spring, it reminds us that the hearts of the population often lie in a far different place than that expressed by the Westernized faces the media choose to broadcast.

Against that experience is the chorus of R2P. So, while being reminded in bloody and violent ways that the Western solution to any given problem is neither desired nor respected, it would appear that a version of Manifest Destiny remains - despite Fukayama himself backing-off from his assertion a decade ago that history was ending.

Indeed, much of what lies behind the recent Russian and Chinese votes in the Security Council have less to do with endorsing violence against a population and more with putting the breaks on what many see as the ever accelerating Western push to judge, intervene, and impose its will on others.

So - I appreciate Mr. Beehner's article - he brings up some good points. What needs to be drilled down to is the nature of the moral authority that gives anyone the "right" to protect, the "right" to intervene, and the "right" to dictate solutions. Often "rights" are merely the creatures and tools of those in power - who not surprisingly - act to remain in power. Even in democracies...

I beg to differ with both Mr. Beehner and Mr. Alvarez:

On the minor point raised, I haven't read "Black Hawk Down" in some time, but feel fairly confident stating that not all killed in the battle were Rangers, and/but none were Marines.



Mon, 02/13/2012 - 10:43pm

Well written and interesting article. Just wanted to point out a quick correction. When referencing the US military's mission in Somalia Mr. Beehner claimed that "marauding Somalis" killed 18 Marines in the “Black Hawk Down episode”. The 18 service members killed in Somalia were actually US Army Rangers.