International inaction on Syria has descended to a previously unimaginable low.
Instead of doing something concrete to stop the atrocities, world leaders are
publicly debating how to characterize the conflict, offering their competing
wisdom on whether Syrians now are engaged in a civil war. This futile battle of
the wordsmiths neither saves Syrian lives nor hastens an end to the
For months, as the Bashar Assad regime’s violence expanded
in intensity and brutality across the country, some observers warned that the
conflict might have evolved 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 last week, 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 quickly concurred. “There are no words
other than ‘civil war’ to describe the situation in Syria,” he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a little less definitive but still leaned
towards the “civil war” designation. She 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 from the earliest days of the crisis no compunction about
interfering, whether politically by twice vetoing UN Security Council
resolutions, or militarily by providing an open spigot of arms supplies to its
longtime ally, the Assad family. Moscow’s unbounded determination to do whatever
it can to secure what it considers to be vital strategic interests in Assad’s
Syria has been key to prolonging the tragedy.
Yet, 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, which receives
support not only from Russia, but also from Iran.
Indeed, those who
really 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
US and EU sanctions, and even to discussions about ways to facilitate Assad’s
Astonishingly, some world leaders are not yet tired of the
endless talk about Syria and now are considering convening a conference in
Geneva on June 30 to discuss ways to bring an end to the conflict. The
likelihood of that meeting even taking place already is in doubt as Moscow is
proposing that Iran be invited to attend.
Syria is the bloodiest of all
the upheavals across the Arab world, with more than 10,000 dead, according to
the UN, and the toll continuing to rise daily as Assad’s forces refuse to stop
their violence. 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.
writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.