The World

Would You Know a Civil War When You Saw One?

Syrian rebels fighting pro-regime forces gather along a road in Syria’s eastern town of Deir Ezzor on Aug. 17, 2013.

Photo by Abo Shuja/AFP/Getty Images

While news outlets and scholars were once wary of applying the phrase, “civil war” now seems to be the preferred term for the ongoing violence in Syria. But is it the most appropriate name for a conflict that has spilled over into Lebanon and involved varying levels of participation from countries including Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, and the United States?

In a recent World Bank policy research paper titled “What Is a Civil War?,” economists Mark Gersovitz and Norma Kriger argue that the term is overused and misleading. (The paper is primarily a critique of current econometric models, but with citations ranging from Max Weber to Ludwig Wittgenstein, it has broader ambitions.) They focus in particular on sub-Saharan Africa, arguing that in this region, “the episodes that are popularly termed civil war … are often not predominantly internal conflicts.”

So what is a civil war? Here’s part of their definition (my emphasis):

We define a civil war as a politically organized, large-scale, sustained, physically violent conflict that occurs within a country principally among large/numerically important groups of its inhabitants or citizens over the monopoly of physical force within the country. … Civil wars must entail large-scale and sustained internal political violence to distinguish them from intense but limited episodes of political violence that contest the monopoly of force, such as political assassinations, mutinies, or coups. Civil war violence may involve external actors, but the violence occurs within the boundaries of a country and predominantly involves internal actors.

Using these criteria, they go as far as to say that “arguably the only civil war case in post-independence sub-Saharan Africa” was the Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 1960s, and even that involved substantial international involvement from countries including Britain and the Soviet Union.

Rather, they say that the vast majority of Africa’s wars are part of what they call “regional war complexes”—ongoing sometimes active, sometimes dormant conflicts involving multiple countries over years or decades. Think, for instance, of how the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide led former Hutu militias to flee into neighboring Congo in 1996, eventually prompting an invasion by Rwanda’s Tutsi-dominated government, later triggering a series of conflicts primarily known as the First and Second Congo Wars that would draw in half a dozen countries and last in various forms to this day. This is known as the “Great Lakes complex” in Gersovitz and Kriger’s paper. More recently, think of how the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya has changed the dynamics of the fighting in Mali.

So why does it matter what we call these wars? Well, thinking of these wars as international rather than internal conflicts helps explain why they’re so hard to end.

“You might think you can disassemble these conflicts by removing just one of the conflict’s problems,” Gersovitz told Slate in a phone interview. “Things may be quiescent for a time, but they can flare up again when one of the countries goes off and starts initiating chain reactions among the others.”

There’s also the question of how to view the global evolution of armed conflict. One of the commonly asserted truisms in international relations these days is that we’re moving from a period of interstate to intrastate conflict. Wars between opposing governments are being replaced by conflicts between armed groups within countries, particularly in the world’s most unstable regions. But according to Gersovitz, “most wars are neither interstate nor intrastate. I just don’t think that’s a useful contrast.”

As for Syria, Gersowitz says, “I would certainly think of it as a regional complex. You see its antecedents in the so-called Lebanese Civil War [of the 1980s], which Syria itself played an active part in, as did Israel.” And obviously, those and other countries are very much active participants in the current situation.

The problem with thinking of Syria as a civil war is that it suggests that the conflict is something isolated and something new. It also gives false comfort that when the current violence finally ends, the problem will be over. This is also something to keep in mind for other countries where this troublesome term is starting to be thrown around.