Is Syria in a state of civil war? And what are ‘coding rules’? Part 2

Now that we know what coding rules are, we can move onto the coding rules advocated by Nicholas Sambanis[1] and use them against what we know about the Syrian Conflict. This may seem like a long-winded post (and that it probably is!), but I promise that it is worth having a read through. Why? Well the answers to the following questions (aka coding rules) tell us basic facts about the conflict and how it is taking shape. It is a conflict with incredibly high casualty rates, and devastating effects for the people of Syria (plus surrounding states, and a pickle for the international community). If that isn’t enough of a reason to keep on reading I don’t know what is… So lets continue! An armed conflict should be classified as a civil war if:

A)     “The war takes places within a territory of a state that is a member of the international system with a population of 500,000 or greater. (This coding rule is a bit more demanding that some others that are out there, states Sambanis.) This rule also pertains to states that are occupying foreign territories that are claiming for independence (e.g. West Bank and Gaza in Israel). A strict application of this coding rule would mean that cases would be dropped if the states claim of independence is rejected by the U.N.”[2]

The Syrian Arab Republic is an independent state and joined the U.N. on the 24th of October 1945. This means that it is a member of the international system. It has a population approximately of 22,500,000 (July 2012 estimate). So yes the Syrian conflict does meet this criterion.

B)     “The parties are politically and militarily organized, and they have publicly stated political objectives. (This coding rule distinguishes insurgent groups and political parties from criminal syndicates and riotous mobs. ’Terrorist’ groups would be classified as insurgent groups, as terrorism is a form of political violence, however they would have to cause a significant level of violence. The distinction between criminal violence and political violence may become blurred in some cases. Non-combatant populations that are often victimised in civil wars are not considered a ‘party’ to the war if they are not organised in a militia or able to apply violence in pursuit of a political objective.)”[3]

The armed Syrian opposition is identifiable, organized, and capable even if it is not entirely unified. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is nominally headquartered in Turkey, thus functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command.[4] The FSA is a politically motivated militant group whose aim is to overthrow Syria’s current government (led by Bashar al-Assad). At the beginning of the political uprising in mid-March 2011, the FSA’s objective was to protect the rights of peaceful protesting civilians against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s government is using its traditional security forces as well as pro-government militia (the Shabiha militia) against the opposition of its regime, calling the FSA a terrorist organisation.[5] So yes the Syrian conflict does also meet this criterion.

C)     “The government (through its military or militias) must be a principle combatant. If there is no functioning government, then the party representing the government internationally and/or claiming the state domestically must be involved as a combatant. (Extensive indirect support – monetary, organizational, military – by the government to militias might also satisfy this criterion, however here it becomes harder to distinguish civil war from communal violence. In some cases where the state has collapsed, it may not be possible to indentify parties representing the state because all parties may be claiming the state, and these conflicts will also be hard to distinguish from intercommunal violence, e.g. Somalia after 1991.)”[6]

The Syrian government is still retaining control of most of the state and state security forces. There is talk that the government may be collapsing from the inside as more persons defect, however it may not fall any time soon as they still have support stemming from Russia and Iran. At the moment Syria meets this criterion as well.

D)    “The main insurgent organization(s) must be locally represented and must recruit locally. Additional external involvement and recruitment need not imply that the war is not intrastate (intrastate was can be taking place at the same time as interstate war – I will post up some definitions of this). Insurgent groups may operate from neighbouring countries, but they must also have some territorial control (bases) in the civil war country and/or the rebels must reside in the civil war country.”


The FSA was started by soldiers who deserted the Syrian state security forces (therefore the FSA started locally). It is thought that the FSA’s main base is in Turkey.[7] The FSA has control of some parts of Syria (map of current strongholds Figure 1)[8]. Syria’s Kurdish Militia has been helping the FSA, and the FSA now controls large areas of the northern and central countryside. By controlling some parts of the border (Qusayr and Azaz), the FSA is able to smuggle weapons from Lebanon and Turkey. Syria meets this criterion as well.




Figure 1.



E)     “The start year of the war is the first year that the conflict causes at least 500 to 1,000 deaths. If the conflict has not caused 500 deaths or more in the first year, the war is coded as having started in that year only if cumulative deaths in the next 3 years reach 1,000. (This range can be relaxed to a range of 100 to 1,000 because fighting might have started late in the year). Finding credible sources of casualty rates is incredibly difficult when armed conflict takes place. If there is no good estimate of deaths for the first year, we can code the onset at the first reported large-scale armed conflict, provided that the violence continues or escalates in the following years”.[9]

Unfortunately trying to figure out exact figures of casualties on both sides of the conflict, plus civilian casualties, is not an easy task. Each side of the conflict may exaggerate their efforts and number of killings, there may be confusion as to which group an individual belongs, and numerous people may go missing during the conflict. Foreign aid agencies and international news groups do their best at totalling the casualties, but all figures are not likely to be 100% correct. With that in mind, I have found it to be almost impossible to find out when and where the first ‘major’ clash occurred between the FSA and government forces. This is what I can be certain about. The first clash between civilian protestors and the Syrian government forces occurred in mid-March 2011 (Probably on the 16th of March, on the ‘Day of Dignity’ when civilians in Damascus were demanding the release of political prisoners, 35 people were said to have been arrested. In the city of Deera, another rally was being held called the ‘Day of Rage’, and this time the Syrian security forces shot numerous protestors, sparking even more rallies and protests.).[10] This would not be considered the beginning of the civil war. These acts of violence fall under the category of ‘politicide’.[11] After these events, more clashes occur between Syrian security forces and civilians. Defectors from the Syrian security forces (later becoming known as the FSA) begin to fight against the Syrian Security Forces in the summer of 2011 (June/July), this would probably be the time a civil war began to progress. It is thought that in June 2011 there was 400 casualties, and in June 2012 3,000.[12] It is also thought that by August 2012, 21,000 people had died in the conflict.[13] Most of those being civilians. I have tried to find statistics for casualty rates pertaining the to the Syrian Security Forces, and the opposition militia, however these vary greatly depending on sources and so it seems that general casualty rates are the most consistent. It is clear however, that from June 2011 until June 2012, thousands of casualties have resulted from the conflict. Even though these figures may not be exact, it is without a doubt that in the first year of ‘civil war’ more than a thousand casualties were recorded. The civil war would have been regarded as having started in June/July 2011. This criterion is also met.

F)     “Throughout its duration, the conflict must be characterized by sustained violence, at least at the minor or intermediate level. There should be no three year period during which the conflict causes fewer than 500 deaths.”[14]


At the moment the conflict in Syria has been continuing on for just over a year. We cannot know just yet when the armed conflict will cease. There has been a high level of violence recorded since June 2011, until the present date.

G)    “Throughout the war, the weaker party must be able to mount effective resistance. Effective resistance is measured by at least 100 deaths inflicted on the stronger party. A substantial number of those deaths must occur in the first year of the war. This criterion must be proportionate to the intensity of the conflict. If the violence becomes effectively one-sided, even if the threshold is met, the civil war must be coded as having ended, and a politicide or other one-sided violence must be coded to have started.”[15]

As we all probably know, the intensity of the conflict has been very high, and the government has been using very high and according to some, disproportionally high levels of violence against the opposition.  However, the opposition must be doing something right as they are still holding onto some strategic strongholds, and according to the Syrian government, 4,000 of its soldiers have been killed in the conflict to date.[16]  So yes, the Syrian conflict also meets this criterion.

H)    “A peace treaty that produces at least 6 months of peace marks the end of the war.”[17]

We have not yet reached that stage of the conflict as of yet.

I)      “A decisive military victory by the rebels that produces a new regime should mark the end of the war. Because civil war is understood as an armed conflict against the government, continuing armed conflict against a new government implies a new civil war. If the government wins the war, a period of peace longer than 6 months must persist before we code a new war.”[18]

We have not yet reached that stage of the conflict as of yet.

J)      “A cease-fire, truce, or simply an end to the fighting can also mark the end of a civil war if they result in at least 2 years of peace. The period of peace must be longer what is required in the case of a peace agreement because we do not have clear signals of the parties’ intent to negotiate an agreement in the case of a truce/cease-fire.” [19]

We have not yet reached that stage of the conflict as of yet.

K)     “If new parties enter the war over new issues, a new war onset should be coded, subject to the same criteria. If the same parties return to a war over the same issues, we generally code the continuation of the old war, unless any of the above criteria for coding a war’s end apply for the period before the resurgence of fighting.”[20]


We have not yet reached that stage of the conflict as of yet.

In conclusion: From all of the answers gathered from the ‘coding rules’ questions, yes, Syria can be deemed to be in civil war (not a huge surprise really)…


The next post will be about weak state theory and how this relates to Syria’s future.  I will also be looking at the international community’s response to the conflict and why states choose the positions they choose.





[1] Nicholas Sambania, ‘What Is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an operational Definition’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 48, 2004

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joseph Holliday for the Institute For The Study Of War, ‘Syria’s Armed Opposition’, Middle East Security Report 3,, March 2012

[5] Jane’s World Insurgency and Terrorism, ‘Free Syrian Army (FSA), Groups – Middle East – Active,July 24, 2012

[6] Nicholas Sambania, ‘What Is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an operational Definition’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 48, 2004

[7] Joseph Holliday for the Institute For The Study Of War, ‘Syria’s Armed Opposition’, Middle East Security Report 3,, March 2012

[8] Al Jazeera, ‘Fractured Revolution’,

, 08/09/12

[9] Nicholas Sambania, ‘What Is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an operational Definition’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 48, 2004

[11] International Coalition For The Responsibility To Protect, ‘Crisis In Syria’,, 2012

[13] Ibid.

[14] “This criterion makes coding very difficult because data on deaths throughout the duration of a conflict are hard to find. However, such coding rules are necessary to prevent to prevent one from coding from coding too many war starts in the same conflict or coding an ongoing civil war when for years after the conflict has ended…” Nicholas Sambania, ‘What Is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an operational Definition’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 48, 2004

[15] Ibid.

[16] Mail Online, ‘Killed in an instant: Moment a Syrian rebel checkpoint takes direct hit is captured in powerful photographs that show the cost of war’,, 09/09/2012

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

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