Syria's war of words

Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Damascus June 11, 2012. Declaring a civil war could change how the outside world perceives the situation

Syria's deepening conflict has now turned into a full-scale civil war. That's the verdict of the UN's Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous.

"The government of Syria has lost some large chunks of territory in several cities to the opposition," he says, "and wants to retake control of these areas".

The pragmatic view is that if it looks and sounds like a civil war, then it is one.

Syria is an internal conflict between different groups; control over significant parts of national territory is being contested; and the opposition aspires to take-over the running of the country, if necessary by forcefully deposing the Assad regime.

But, as Professor Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics notes, "designating the conflict as a civil war has no legal bearing".

Unequal struggle

The recognition of the crisis as a civil war matters more in terms of the perception of what is going on and what the international community can do about it.

Start Quote

The challenge is no longer President Assad versus the opposition, but Syrians battling one another and killing each other.”

End Quote Fawaz Gerges Director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics

"Civil war status complicates the Syrian crisis and makes military intervention much more difficult than it already is," he argues.

"As Western politicians have repeatedly warned, how do you intervene when neighbour turns against neighbour and village against village?"

So what is to be done? As the death toll inside the country mounts, none of the available options facing potential external actors is terribly attractive.

Persistent reports that the Syrian opposition is being armed by the Saudi and Qatari authorities seem to be borne out by their greater military effectiveness in recent weeks.

But Western military analysts say that while the opposition forces may now be able to give a better account of themselves, they cannot yet defeat the government forces ranged against them. This is still a very unequal struggle.

Sad trajectory

I spoke to the veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross - now a senior policy analyst at the US think-tank the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

His point was that we are likely to see similar consequences whatever policy outside actors choose; Syria's sad trajectory is already set.

"If we stay on the current track," he told me, "the sectarian divide in the country will become unbridgeable; we will see an increasing fragmentation of the Syrian state; and civil war will become endemic."

Mr Ross, a veteran negotiator who has written a standard manual on diplomacy, suggests that there are four steps, which if taken together might alter perceptions even in Damascus.

"Russia plays a pivotal role," he says. "Arab governments have to make it clear to the Russians that they can either be friends with President Assad or with the rest of the Arab world.

"If Russia helps with a political transition in Syria then there will be benefits for Moscow across the region."

Protest against  Bashar al-Assad in Sermeen near Idlib, June 8 2012. The banner reads: "There is only one god and Muhammad is his prophet". Some of the protests in Syria have taken on a more sectarian nature with religious messages on banners

Groups like the Friends of Syria must also make it crystal clear that minority rights in any new Syria that emerges would be assured.

"The Saudis need to reach out to the Alawite community in Syria to offer them assurances," he told me.

That's step two. Step three, Mr Ross argues, is to bolster the Syrian National Council's (SNC) standing; to have it, as he puts it, "clearly anointed" by the outside world.

This, of course, is problematic since the SNC's imperfections are well known and it has struggled to put down strong roots inside Syria itself.

Finally, he says serious planning must begin to establish safe havens in the northern part of Syria for fleeing refugees. Here too Mr Ross accepts there are problems.

Turkey would want either a UN Security Council resolution or a Nato decision to establish such a zone, and neither is likely to be forthcoming.

Diplomatic message

But Dennis Ross believes that these four steps taken together could help "to change the balance of psychology", not least in Moscow.

Professor Gerges also sees the increasing recognition of the Syrian conflict as a civil war as a deliberate attempt to telegraph a diplomatic message.

"My take," he told me, "is that statements by UN and Western officials about Syria reaching the tipping point of all-out civil war are designed to impress on Assad's allies, particularly the Russians, the urgency and gravity of the situation and the need to exert pressure on Assad to accept the Kofi Annan peace initiative."

The badly stalled Annan plan remains the only diplomatic template for Syria's future.

Many worry that events have already left it languishing in irrelevance. Meanwhile, events on the ground are getting ever more brutal.

"The challenge is no longer President Assad versus the opposition," says Fawaz Gerges, "but Syrians battling one another and killing each other.

The decision by the International Committee of the Red Cross (the ICRC) to designate the violence in Syria as "an internal armed conflict" is a technical step - opening up the combatants to prosecution for war crimes if they breach the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war.

But in reality this threshold was crossed weeks ago with serious concerns about the shelling of civilian areas by Syrian government forces and the activities of pro-government militia units. A number of Western governments have already offered help to opposition groups to enable them to record what is happening and to gather evidence; evidence that could be used in future war crimes trials.

At a more fundamental level, the semantic debate as to whether the violence in Syria constitutes a civil war or not is largely academic. The fighting is now undeniably of a duration, intensity and geographical spread that raises serious questions about the long-term survival of the regime.

In the real world there are no tidy distinctions: armed insurrection; civil war; sectarian conflict. The fighting in Syria has elements of all three.

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