On My Mind: Syrian conflict wordsmiths

International inaction on Syria has descended to a previously unimaginable low.

UN peacekeeping officials in Syria 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
UN peacekeeping officials in Syria 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 conflict.
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.
US 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 departure.
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.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.