The Syrian Conflict is Already a Civil War

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 Sambanis‘ thorough 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.

Some people add that the armed combatants must be organized, or possess an internal military structure, although this is not central to all definitions. Others reduce the necessary threshold of fatalities, thus admitting lower-intensity conflicts to the list of “intra-state armed conflicts” in general.

Regardless, the Syrian conflict clearly meets all of these criteria—in fact, the conflict probably crossed these thresholds sometime last summer. Since July (maybe earlier), there have been at least two organized armed groups fighting over the center. The incumbent government is clearly one of the combatants, with the Free Syrian Army (and maybe some other armed militias) prosecuting the conflict against it. With thousands of Syrians killed, including up to 2,000 regime loyalists, the casualty figures are straightforward—assuming these figures are accurate. All of this has unfolded within a relatively short time span, indicating a level of conflict intensity that is on par with other “typical” civil wars.

By the way, the seeming reluctance to call the Syrian conflict a civil war reminds me of a similar debate that occurred in 2006, when Iraqi and Coalition officials denied that Iraq had fallen into a civil war. The facts on the ground elicited a compelling op-ed and article by James Fearon, who pretty much established that Iraq was in the midst of a civil war—a pretty bad one, too. (In fact, I should mention that James Fearon is the one who first raised the question of Syria’s civil war status during a conversation we had a number of weeks ago).

One issue, of course, is “who declares” a civil war. I suppose this thankless task is often left to the academics who count them. So, we can add another one to the list. Despite denials, the Syrian Civil War is already well underway.

6 Responses to The Syrian Conflict is Already a Civil War

  1. Will Moore January 15, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    In case it is of interest, Jim Fearon got some media attention regarding “when is a conflict a civil war?” in Spring 2006 when the discussion was “Is Iraq a civil war?”

    Time Magazine:

    Washington Post:

    • Erica Chenoweth January 15, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      Hi Will,
      Yes indeed. I mention this toward the end of the piece, but it’s not front and center in my post. Thanks for posting these links.

  2. LS January 15, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    “With thousands of Syrians killed, including up to 2,000 regime loyalists, the casualty figures are straightforward—assuming these figures are accurate. “

    Yes, and that is a big assumption to make, particularly since the Reuters article you cite states, “Syrian authorities have denied reports of abuses and say they are fighting foreign-backed Islamists who have killed 2,000 soldiers and police.” It should be clear to all observers that the narrative told by the Syrian authorities for the past 10 months has been false: the government is facing a movement by peaceful protesters, but Syrian authorities and the state media has continues to call them “armed gangs,” “Salafis,” “terrorists,” groups armed by Israel, the US, Turkey, and/or Qatar…take your pick. So I would warn against trusting anything the Syrian authorities say, numbers or otherwise. Certainly there have been Syrian soldiers killed since the start of the uprising in March, but they have mostly been soldiers who either try to defect or who refuse to shoot the unarmed protesters, or both. We can easily cite the UN, who places the death toll in Syria at over 5,000 in December, while the number by now is over 6,000, as government violence has increased dramatically in the past few weeks.

    Until the defections from the Syrian army began to increase and the Free Syrian Army (made up of army defectors) formed this summer, this “conflict” was one-sided, i.e. the government arresting, torturing, and killing protesters and other random civilians. But the Free Syrian Army, which has been holding talks with the Syrian National Council, the political face of the revolution (see here:, perhaps as a start for more coordinated efforts to seek outside intervention to end the government’s brutality against the protest movement.

    Perhaps, then, that according to most scholars on civil war, the current situation in Syria may qualify as a “civil war,” but as all political scientists know, operationalizing concepts, especially in ways conducive to statistical analysis, is a difficult and not always accurate task that often misses the nuances of each case or data point.

    I wonder if there is any scholarship on the impact of media coverage on the escalation of violence and/or civil war: I think that may be relevant, given the importance of media (and social media) coverage (or lack thereof, since most journalists are reporting from afar since the Syrian government has pretty much barred foreign journalists from entering the country) in recent uprisings, particularly the Arab Spring. In other words if pundits, journalists, policymakers, and even some scholars keep talking about the possibility of “civil war” in a conflict, particularly a one-sided violent conflict, is it more likely or less likely for that conflict to escalate into what we call civil war?

  3. Joseph K. Young January 15, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    Thanks Erica for bringing up this issue. I recall Fearon’s 2006 piece as it was a corrective to some who believed that violence in Iraq would soon dissipate (difference between a low-level insurgency and a full blown civil war).

    While some may suggest that this id idle musings, I think the debate over what to call these events is more than semantic or even political. Importantly, identifying what kind of violence is going on Syria likely relates to

    1. How it will end
    2. How many will die
    3. Who will win

    If it is civil war, the opposition has a different (lower) probability of winning than if the state is using one-sided violence and the dissidents are merely protesting (right Erica?). The probabilities of the Syrian opposition winning increase if it becomes an internationalized civil war (assuming intervention occurs on the side of the dissidents). Of course, this will effect duration, type of settlement and other factors. Interestingly, Israel seems to think that the regime will fall and that they will have to take in the refugees ( Not sure if this evidence for or against labeling this a civil war.

  4. Jeremy Pressman January 16, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    This insightful post begs a second question: why deny Syria is in a civil war? I put down some thoughts here:

  5. Mohammad Magout January 24, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    Wow.. “in fact, the conflict probably crossed these thresholds sometime last summer. Since July (maybe earlier)”. Possibly you mean on 15th of March the “civil war” started in Syria when few people marched in Damascus or three days later when the pople of Dar’a protested the abduction of some children by security forces?

    I think the article is very “keen” to label what is happening in Syria as a “civil war” and extend it back to the very beginning. It is a legitimate question, of course, to ask whether what has been happening in Syria in the past few months is a civil war or not. But to claim that in June or July there were already “organised groups fighting”, which implies that militarisation of the protest movement had started 1 or 2 months earlier , i.e. in April or May, is in my opinion way off the tangent.