Don’t Call It A Comeback (This Civil War Has Been Here For Years)

Well, maybe not years. And LL Cool J references aside, while perusing my usual news outlets this morning I've found that in the wake of what is reported to be a fresh massacre, Syria is again a common theme in the headlines (see CNN, BBC, FP). More after the jump.

I'm particularly curious about UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's recent comments that Syria is floating ever further toward civil war (CNN):

How many more times have we to condemn them, and how many ways must we say we are outraged?" U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday after 10 hours of talks on Syria. "The danger of full-scale civil war is imminent and real, with catastrophic consequences for Syria and the region.

I've come across this kind of comment several times in the past few weeks, and there seems to be this perpetual sense that Syria is almost at the point of civil war. Kofi Annan does slightly better, but still seems reluctant to use the actual term (CNN):

"You could say we are drifting, if we are not already in, a sort of a civil war," he said. "All efforts are being made that, if it were to become a full-blown civil war, it doesn't spread to neighbors."

So, just what has to happen before policymakers are willing to consider Syria a civil war? This is something that political scientists have been discussing for a while, and as Erica Chenoweth at the Monkey Cage pointed out on January 15 of this year, the conflict in Syria has long passed the criteria many political scientists use to define civil war—further suggesting that it's possible that the criteria highlighted were met last summer. 

I understand that there is some strategic value for policymakers in having a level of ambiguity when defining/operationalizing these concepts, as it perhaps allows them some freedom of action that might not otherwise be available if they were to follow more strictly defined criteria. By the nature of the job, many political scientists have to define these phenomena for the purposes of measurement and operationalization. We need some criteria for inclusion/exclusion if we hope to study such events in a systematic fashion. That said, Chenoweth's piece also points out that there is some variation with respect to how political scientists define civil war. Still, attempts are made to create some sort of standard by which we can attempt to identify the phenomena of interest. And while I don't mean to go too far afield here, given the recent hullabaloo over NSF funding for political science this seems like a good time to point out that even in the hard/natural sciences the standards for defining the inclusion/exclusion of certain phenomena in various fields of study are nowhere near as certain or uniform as we often pretend they are (see Richard Dawkins' discussion of how we classify members of the genus homo and its ancestors, and the sacking of Pluto from the club of planets. And do we yet really know what light is? i.e. particle, wave, electro-magnetic disturbance, etc. I really don't know on this last one.).

However, just what has to happen before a general consensus is reached among policymakers that the conditions on the ground are in fact enough to merit the labeling of the Syrian crisis as a civil war? Presumably there is some political advantage to not using the term, but I remain unclear as to what that political advantage is. I really don't believe that Russia or China are somehow being more cooperative because US and UN policymakers are refraining from calling the Syrian conflict what it is, or that they may somehow be more willing to intervene. At the very least, wouldn't policymakers look slightly less feeble if they were to embrace the notion that Syria is in the midst of a civil war, thereby implying that there are at least two warring factions, rather than a mass of civilians being brutally repressed by their government? It is certainly possible that senior US, UN, Russian, Chinese, Arab League, and European officials call the Syrian conflict what it is behind closed doors, but I find this possibility to be, perhaps, even more perplexing. What am I missing here?

Lastly, does this speak to, or have any major implications for, the gap between academics and policymakers? I think perhaps one major hurdle that we face as a discipline is the broader acceptance of some kind of professional "authority" for lack of a better term. We know and accept what atoms, stars, and radiation are because "professionals" have done the research and told us. Even when Pluto ceases to be a planet, people seem to—albeit begrudgingly—accept this change. Political scientists don't seem to enjoy this kind of credibility or authority among the wider populous. 

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alabama and will be joining the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University in the fall of 2014 as an assistant professor. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy.

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