Is Syria in a state of civil war? And what are ‘coding rules’? Part 1

Everyone has no doubtedly  (I’m not sure if that’s a word, but it should be!) heard about the conflict in Syria and its many casualties. While the news informs us where the majority of fighting is taking place, and how many casualties have been recorded on the said day, it is hard to figure out who is fighting who, what the conflict is about, and how the conflict has taken shape. When I started looking into the issue I found so many different complexities intertwining with each other that I really wasn’t sure were to begin. The simplest way to start explaining and exploring the conflict is to decide what type of conflict it really is. That unfortunately in itself is a mind field (and a little easier to do with the perspective of time – while the conflict is unfolding it can change quite drastically as it proceeds), but we shall try to not loose our minds so early on and try and make some sense out of it.

A recent announcement made by the Syrian government shocked many people and can help us explore the type of conflict that is unfolding. Syrian authorities have claimed that Syria is not in a state of civil war, and that any such statements contradict reality.[1] Has someone lost their marbles? A spokeswoman for the Syrian Local Coordination Committee, Rafif Jouejati, has also rejected the notion of a civil war being played out in Syria because of the way the war started, that is; with peaceful protests, which according to the Coordination Committee still happen everyday Syria.[2] She also states that the Assad regime has forced the revolution to militarize and that the conflict should be labeled a humanitarian war instead. I would, reject both of these claims, and conclude that yes Syria is indeed currently in a state of civil war (however, other types of political conflict may also be taking place, but that can be looked at later). Both sides in the Syrian conflict have their own reasons for stating that Syria is not involved in a civil war. The most obvious being that if they had declared a civil war, then both sides are subjected to the Geneva Convention in terms of the rules of war, and later able to be subjected to the International Criminal Court and its conventions. Of course, just because both sides claim to not be in a state of civil war, does not mean that this claim is correct. Al Jazeera has provided guidelines to what constitutes a civil war (I use these as an example, as I watched this news story unfold on TV and would think that other broadcasters use similar examples), however I would argue that it’s guidelines are rather simplistic and only touch the tip of the iceberg (unfortunately the problem with TV news broadcasters is exactly that, they are too simplistic when it comes to complex issues) when it comes to the theoretical variables needed for such ‘coding rules’ (What are these?! > determining factors for whether or not a conflict is deemed to be a civil war) to be comprehensive. Al Jazeera also does not say where they got these ‘guidelines’ from. [3]

Lets start our theoretical journey by stating that it is impossible and probably undesirable to have only one definition of civil war. The way in which we choose to define conflicts through ‘coding rules’ can dramatically change our outlook on the given conflict. Coding rules have changed dramatically over time and opinions of course vary as to what the correct coding rules are. It is also difficult to study civil war without considering that the forms of violence taking place in a particular conflict can and often do change over time, to include such forms of political violence as e.g. terrorism, a coup, genocide, organized crime, international conflict or politicide.[4] Therefore the statement made by Rafif Jouejati that the conflict is not a civil war because at the beginning of the political uprising there was no armed conflict on the part of the public movement, does not mean that the nature of the conflict has not changed or shifted, and indeed we can see that it has changed as both sides have engaged in conflict (irrelevant as to who started it).  We will discuss further down whether or not it can be classified as a civil war.

Nicholas Sambanis[5] details different coding rules and examples of armed political conflict, and the difficulty in determining whether or not particular armed conflicts can be determined to be civil wars. I will not go into great detail about the ambiguity and difficulties inherent in the various coding systems (perhaps another time if there is sufficient interest), however he does present a system of coding rules which are widely used (all of the basic requirements are kept), however tweaked so that some common problems do not reappear.

For example, the Correlates of War (also known as COW – determines some of the leading coding rules, which they themselves have changed numerous times also resulting in problems with data) has a threshold that needs to be meet in regards to how many state forces, as well as how many of the opposing forces or civilian deaths need to occur over a period of time in order to call the conflict a civil war. One problem with this is that because the threshold required is fixed, states with small populations may not reach the threshold of deaths required to call it a civil war, and are thus looked over by the international system and they then cannot take advantage of the conventions in place that dictate the rules of war in terms of civil war. Sambanis proposes instead the number should not be ‘fixed’, but rather should be flexible and based on the nations population per capita in relation to deaths in armed conflict. He gives the example that if 500 people were killed in a one year period (the lowest number of casualties suggested by coding rules to declare the onset of war) in a country with half a million inhabitants (also the smallest population allowed by most coding rules) would amount to 0.001 of the population. A conflict of equal magnitude in a country of 20 million would have caused 20,00 deaths and would have been classified as a civil war by most coding rules (along with other characteristics). It is clear that even in a state with a small population of half a million inhabitants, 500 casualties would be an unprecedented tragedy.[6]

We will continue will Sambanis’ coding rules and apply them to Syria’s current internal conflict as best we can with the current available data, and hopefully be able to determine if a civil war is taking place in part 2 of this blog post J

Speaking of marbles earlier, does anyone remember playing with them as a child? I do, and have no idea what happened with them (as in, not only did they disappear out of shops; I don’t know where my vast collection went to…). It’s almost like the fun police of all things cool decided to ban them as they weren’t cool enough anymore and destroy all known replicas. I remember distinctly that I kept mine in a small brown material pull string bag. Does anyone know where you can still buy them? I guess I have ‘lost’ my marbles hahaha bad joke I know. Kinda sad that it’s true to0 :/

*Please be mindful of others when commenting. You are allowed to disagree and debate an issues, but targetting an individual or persons with derogatary name calling will not tolerated, and the comments will be annihilated.

[1] Al Jazeera English, ‘Is Syria in a state of civil war?’, accessed on 10/09/12,26/08/2012

[2] “We reject the label of civil war, because we go back to how this revolution started: with peaceful protests – and they continue throughout the country, every day, every week, in every governorate. Now the Assad regime has forced the militarisation of the revolution, but he in fact himself has declared a war against his people. I would call this a humanitarian war against the Syrian people.” – Rafif Jouejati, a Syrian Local Coordination Committee spokeswoma Ibid.

[3] Constitutes of civil war provided by Al Jazeera: 1. It is a high-intensity conflict between organised groups within the same nation state or Republic, 2. The aim of one side may be to take control of the country or a region, 3. Another category of a civil war is involving regular armed forces, which are sustained, organised and large-scale, 4. Large numbers of casualties and the consumption of significant resources would also constitute a civil war. Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nicholas Sambanis, ‘What Is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an Operational Definition’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 48, 2004

[6] Ibid.


5 thoughts on “Is Syria in a state of civil war? And what are ‘coding rules’? Part 1

  1. I followed the link from mamamia. this is great – I was really not getting the whole syria thing at all until I read this.

    Look forward to more posts

    • Thanks so much Heidi! I’m still a newbie at the posting/blogging thing, but will continue to post regularly and do my best to help explain some of the crazy stuff that happens in this world! If you have any topics that you would like me to cover, just let me know 🙂 thanks again!

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