Is Syria at War?

Assad interview photoViolence continues to escalate in Syria. The opposition Free Syria Army, consisting of defectors from the army, has engaged in several lethal clashes with government forces recently. Until now I have not included Syria on my list of wars in progress, but I am edging closer to adding it.

To be considered a war, an armed conflict must pit two armed groups against each other, contesting territory or control of government, with the repeated use of lethal force. Peace researchers who count wars do not include “one-sided violence” and most of Syria’s lethal violence this year has been just that. Now, with the emergence of the Free Syria Army, Syria is moving toward a civil war. Yemen had a somewhat similar profile (unarmed protesters plus armed tribesmen and a defecting portion of the army), but Yemen was already on the war list because of two other longstanding armed conflicts there.

In the Syrian case, I have been waiting to see if this move toward civil war is sustained. Right now the actual lethal armed clashes between two fighting forces are at a very low level and sporadic. Today’s armed clashes involving the Free Syria Army reportedly killed between 8 and 18 people. And this week ugly sectarian killings in the city of Homs, heart of the opposition, took dozens of lives. Government violence against unarmed protesters continues as well, with protesters today holding a general strike and the government using force against them. The UN estimates that 4,000 people have died in the 9-month-long Syrian uprising, the vast majority clearly being unarmed demonstrators killed by government security forces.

The Syrian unrest is beginning to destabilize the neighborhood. On Friday a bomb in southern Lebanon wounded five French peacekeepers, and the French foreign minister has now accused Syria of being behind the attack. The Lebanese armed group, and leading political party, Hezbollah, has reaffirmed its strong support for its longtime patron, Syrian president Assad. In Jordan this weekend, anti-Assad demonstrators stormed the Syrian embassy and injured two diplomats. Meanwhile Syria’s strongest regional ally, Iran, is going through a turbulent period with new international sanctions against its nuclear weapons program. Syria’s vice president thanked Iran today for its steadfast support of the Assad regime.

If Syria keeps moving in the current direction, there is much to worry about and I will be adding the country to my list of wars in progress. I do not want to do so before it is really clear that Syria is in a civil war. The UN’s top human rights official said just that earlier this month. But at the moment Syria is just hovering at the brink of a real civil war and I do not want to assume the worst.

The question may be decided in the next few days though. On Saturday the government gave an ultimatum to the opposition in its stronghold of Homs — stop holding demonstrations, turn in weapons, and hand over defecting members of Syria’s army. Obviously those things are not going to happen. The “or else” is a bombardment of the city by government forces. When Assad’s father faced a serious armed uprising by Islamist militants in the city of Hama in 1982, he flattened it with artillery, killing tens of thousands of people.

The bizarre topping on the week’s Syria news was an interview that Assad gave with ABC News’s Barbara Walters — his first with an American journalist since the protests began nine months ago. Denying everything, Assad said he did not give orders for a crackdown and that most of the people killed were his government’s forces. His response to the UN’s estimate of 4,000 deaths was “Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?” At times he seemed out of touch with reality — realities like the Arab League has taken unprecedented steps to sanction him; his former ally Turkey has turned against him; the European Union and United States oppose him; and Syrians continue to march in the streets against him after nine months of violent repression including murder, torture, and imprisonment.

Assad declared, “We don’t kill our peopleā€¦ no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.” I’m not saying Assad is crazy, but without a doubt he’s killing his own people. And now they’re starting to shoot back. This is probably going to get worse before it gets better.

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