So Much Worse Than Civil War

The escalation of violence in Syria makes the pundit query of the week: Is Syria descending into civil war? My answer: NO, it is so much worse than that. A number of harsh realities support my claim.

First, the violence now rapidly spreading across Syria is not the pitched street battles and organized forces of civil war. It is a combination of state terrorism, large-scale political demonstrations which grow violent when government forces confront these, and isolated hit and run attacks on government forces by random army defectors. The lack of unified political and military central control in the opposition also means more chaotic violence than civil war.

Second, the killing continues to be overwhelmingly by the government, thus my label state terrorism. The combination of UN data and the various human rights groups' information combines with the reporting of the dissidents -- who haven't lied yet about the data -- to clearly indicate that government killing has increased in the past three weeks. It is certain that sniper killings have, because more and more towns have people protesting in the streets, as the Arab League mission visited various places. Surveillance has also increased and there are more death squad goons running around knocking down doors and taking away relatives of known dissidents.

Third, the government has constructed its own narrative of the threat it faces, and this predicts to gruesome and winner-take-all fighting. Assad blames terrorists for violence in Syria for reasons he appears to believe as valid and true, however illogical they may appear to outsiders. To accuse him of lying misses a critical dimension of why this conflict will move to greater chaos and bloodshed. Assad truly believes that anyone who would disturb the peace and prosperity of Syria must be a terrorist.

Whereas non-violent protest is hardly any use of force, Assad considers this the most violent of all assaults because these people are disobeying the state's law not to demonstrate disloyalty. Then, when they are arrested, outsiders blame the government forces for harsh treatment. Thus the government is 'terrorized' by these actions. To this, Assad adds the clever, cynical claim that these Syrian terrorists are of al Qaida. Thus his government should be a candidate for Western aid, not condemnation.

Moreover, Assad's command of the media has allowed him to convince his minority sect in Damascus that radical Islamists are surrounding them, about to kill them, and to ruin Syria. Assad has so polarized his supporters with stories of how they are under life and death siege that these followers will see no choice but to arm themselves and fight their Syrian brothers to the death. Compromise and dialogue are portrayed as surrender.

A fourth deadly component of Syrian violence is its regional dimension. Unlike any other 'Arab spring' case to date, Syria has complex entanglements with other border states with similar sectarian rifts. Much of Hezbollah's future in Lebanon -- and as an entity -- hinges on Assad's survival. With Iraq again marching to major sectarian violence, parallel battles in Syria might trigger a region-wide factional war. Thus, the lethality of violence in Syria might leap over the civil war stage to something worse geographically.

The final piece of this deadly dilemma comes from a fractured and weak international response to the crisis. It is true that U.S., UK and EU sanctions are bringing the Syrian economy to its knees. But these states are not in a position to do more than the sanctions unless the Russians join in Security Council action. A large Russian ship, presumably carrying lots of arms and survival staples for the regime, docked in Syria last week. This type of aid can keep Assad afloat for a good while, and will aid his delusion that he can simply kill his way out of this protest era.

The actions by the Arab League, to expel, then sanction and now monitor Syria are a first for them. The League is tentative and cautious, and had naively expected more cooperation from Assad. The League took charge because they did not want another Western action demonstrated in Libya. Recent calls for an Arab intervention force are admirable, even sensible, but have no real prospect for happening.

Thus, and tragically, Syria is so much worse than civil war.