Debating what to label bloodshed in Syria
International inaction on Syria has descended to a previously unimaginable low. Instead of doing something to stop the atrocities world leaders publicly debate how to characterize the conflict, offering their competing wisdom on whether Syrians are engaged in a civil war. This futile battle of the wordsmiths neither saves Syrian lives nor hastens an end to the conflict.
For months, as the Bashar al-Assad regime’s violence expanded in intensity and brutality across the country, some observers warned that the conflict might evolve into a civil war. Those who subscribe to that view got a boost when UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous, in a widely reported interview, was asked if the Syria conflict has become a civil war. He replied, "Yes, I think we can say that."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius concurred. "There are no words other than ‘civil war’ to describe the situation in Syria," he said.
A little less definitive but still leaning towards the "civil war" designation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that "the situation is spiraling toward civil war, and it's now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia and all Security Council members, to speak to Assad with a unified voice and insist that the violence stop."
But for Russia the conflict has always been an "internal" matter to be resolved by the Syrian people themselves. To emphasize that point, Foreign Minister Lavrov has warned that international pressure for Assad to step down "would mean plunging Syria into a protracted and bloody civil war." Of course, Moscow has demonstrated throughout the crisis no compunction about interfering, whether politically by blocking UN Security Council actions, or militarily by providing an open spigot of arms supplies to its longtime ally, the Assad family.
Significantly, no one in Syria is calling the 15-month-old conflict a civil war. "Syria is not witnessing a 'civil war,' but a struggle to uproot the plague of terrorism," said the Syrian Foreign Ministry. The Assad regime, which knows how to stay on message, has consistently maintained that it is battling not Syrians but foreign operatives seeking to undermine the government.
The Syrian masses, the first victims of the Assad regime’s manic and increasingly violent war against its own people, would also disagree with the "civil war" designation. An opposition that conducted months of peaceful protests only to be met with more regime brutality and empty promises of reform has resorted to taking up arms, but is no match for the powerfully deadly Syrian armed forces.
Indeed, those who want to help Syrians opposed to Assad should resist employing the "civil war" term since that designation connotes an inaccurate equivalence between the regime and the opposition. This absurd comparison has been at the core of Chinese and Russian opposition to any meaningful UN Security Council action, to U.S. and EU sanctions, and even to discussions about ways to facilitate Assad’s departure.
Astonishingly, some world leaders not yet tired of the endless talk about Syria are looking to convene a conference in Geneva on June 30 to discuss ways to bring an end to the conflict. But how much longer must the Syrian people wait?
What will happen in the interim is crystal clear, and tragic. The regime’s forces will continue the carnage that already has, according to the UN, produced more than 10,000 dead. Syria stands out as the bloodiest of all the upheavals across the Arab world.
Why wait? The five permanent UN Security Council members, and Germany, will be in Moscow on Monday and Tuesday to discuss with Iran its nuclear program. The U.S. should insist that the Syrian situation is also discussed, in a separate meeting without Iran, among the representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S.
The beleaguered Syrian people are still hoping for international action at least to deliver humanitarian assistance, and then to unite on an effective plan that will bring an end to their nightmare.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.