Syria Is Now a 'Civil War.' Does That Matter?

After a year and a half of escalating violence and thousands killed, the International Red Cross has finally gotten around to labeling Syria a "civil war." The reaction from most experts is: Well, duh. This is the foreign policy equivalent of Anderson Cooper coming out of the closet: Tell us something we didn't already know.

But does this distinction, from either a legal or policy perspective, really matter? From a legal perspective, the actors in the conflict are now subject to what's called "international humanitarian law," which means that the Geneva Conventions -- that is, the laws that regulate actors' conduct of jus in bello -- apply (for a nice roundup of the legal implications, see Bobby Chesney's blog post). It doesn't necessarily mean that prisoners will get comfier digs, civilians will no longer be unlawfully targeted, or that Assad will be prosecuted as a war criminal in The Hague. But it does provide greater legal ammo to human rights defenders who want him charged pronto. That is because the laws of war are different from, say, the laws of armed protests (recall that France called its decades-long conflict in Algeria a "police operation" to avoid outside criticism of its human rights abuses). Even so, this semantic distinction is more of a matter for folks in fancy suits in Western capitals to debate. On the ground, it's not like a Hunger Games-style anthem goes off and the rules of engagement are irrevocably changed.

That said, it may matter more from a policy perspective. That is, the civil war distinction in theory is meant to push the international community to take greater notice and become more engaged. We would expect tougher sanctions and UN security council resolutions to follow (the regime in question, whether Libya's Gaddafi or Syria's Assad, blames foreign terrorists to avoid the civil war tag). In reality, however, often the opposite is the case, as I've noted here and here. The civil war label is a loaded term that fuels the argument made by non-interventionists that this is an internal struggle, sometimes driven by ancient ethnic hatreds, and that we need to just "give war a chance." Or in James Baker's immortalized words on the Balkans: "We don't have a dog in that fight." The trouble with the civil war distinction is its arbitrariness (if the threshold used by political scientists were to apply, Syria was a civil war well over a year ago) and its rhetorical baggage: Does a civil war label prompt action by outsiders or inaction?

In the end, the semantics of conflict may matter less than events on the ground. Short of a pending Benghazi or Srebrenica-style massacre, it appears unlikely that the international community will do anything to get off its duff and intervene. Even the relatively doable task of imposing a no-fly zone or arming the rebels looks improbable at this point. The Kofi Annan peace plan is dead in the water, and the Russians will not do anything to nudge their longtime ally in Damascus aside. Sadly, a foreign NGO calling the conflict a civil war is unlikely to change any of this.