The Syrian Civil War

Over at the new Political Violence at a Glance blog, Barbara Walter and Elizabeth Martin address a question that I raised last week regarding the reluctance of policymakers to label the Syrian conflict a civil war. Walter and Martin raise three/four points in particular (I may be lumping something together here) to help explain this behavior, but I have a couple of further questions/comments. 

  1. "No politician wants to be connected to a conflict that has deteriorated on their watch": I buy this to some extent. However, recent headlines have been using words like "human shields" and "massacre" to describe the goings on in Syria. So while I agree that politicians would prefer to not be associated with a state declining into civil war, I'm not sure that being perceived to stand by while a state massacres its own people is something politicians are accepting of either.  
  2. "The term 'civil war' conjures up images of a long, bloody war, which is bad news for markets and election cycle": On this point I guess I would quibble with the notion that it's the terminology as opposed to the conditions on the ground that actually have an impact. I think it's pretty reasonable to argue that a long and drawn out civil war would have an adverse effect on foreign investment, trade, etc. But insofar as such foreign interests are concerned, what is the relative risk or uncertainty associated with a state that is "almost" in a civil war, or "on the brink," as compared to a state that is labeled as being in a civil war? Once it's gotten to this point, and the conflict persists with little sign of improving, is there a substantial difference? I think major investors are going to be making their decisions on the basis of the conditions on the ground as opposed to how policymakers are labeling the conflict. If investors and other interests are truly worried about the conditions associated with a civil war, they have probably already started to guard themselves against losses, since waiting to take action until after a conflict descends into full-blown civil war would be too late.
  3. "Labeling the violence as something as organized and destructive as a 'civil war' creates political pressure for wealthier more powerful states to 'do something': This is closely connected with the previous point, and I think this point is probably pretty accurate. It's pretty reasonable to assume that states will be pressured by certain constituencies to act in the event of a civil war—particularly if those constituencies are highly involved in the aforementioned trade or investment sectors, some of which may have deep economic interests in the state in question. Still, I have to go back to the conditions on the ground and how those conditions inform the preferences of various interests over intervention. All else being equal, this particular point would suggest that simply changing the label from "crisis" to "civil war" would create greater pressure to intervene. Conditions in Syria have been pretty bad for quite a while. Accordingly, I suspect that investors and those with other economic interests and ties to Syria have been paying attention for some time as well. Those individuals that would place serious pressure on governments to intervene are probably more tuned in to actual conditions than your average joe. As such, I suspect they are more worried about what's actually happening, as opposed to how politicians are labeling the conflict. Accordingly, changing the label probably has little impact on the preferences of those interests who are going to be the most important actors in any intervention lobbying effort. As to the preferences of the broader electorate, I'm not sure. Walter and Martin could be right, and the label may have a larger impact on the perceived seriousness of the conflict for the broader electorate. 
  4. Why don't journalists use the term? Walter and Martin suggest that this is reflective of sentiments held by the broader American public, and the fact that few people are really enthusiastic about wanting to send American soldiers back to the Middle East. This could certainly be part of the underlying reason, and would suggest that the dynamics associated with changing the label (point 3) are perceived by some folks to have an effect on the broader electorate. Alternatively, it could simply be that journalists are taking their cues from politicians. As I discussed previously, political scientists are in the business of defining and categorizing events like civil wars—journalists and politicians less so. Consequently, it might just be the case that politicians are setting the standard, and journalists are going by that standard for lack of a better (or more publicly visible) one. 

Ultimately, I think Walter and Martin are correct insofar as the general distaste for intervention is concerned. It's been pretty clear for a while that major players like Russia and China are opposed to any form of military intervention. Even US and Western European actors do not seem to be making a lot of noise about it at this point. In spite of the fact that Libya has been touted as a model for multilateral intervention, the aftermath has not worked out so neatly. Accordingly, Western leaders may not be too eager to try it again—especially in a state that presents a generally greater challenge for such an intervention in terms of state capabilities and geographic location. I guess I remain unsure as to the role played by labeling the conflict one way or the other in this process and just how important that label actually is. Am I missing anything? Thoughts?


About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. 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, security issues, and state repression.

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