Civil war is a rather complex phenomenon. Concepts like right and wrong, legal and illegal, legitimate and illegitimate, rebel and freedom fighter, and terrorism and law enforcement are confusingly intermingled and overlapping.
The winner generally determines how the parties and their deeds are looked upon. Another point that contributes to how each side is looked upon is the nature or identity of the sides in the conflict and their backers. Whoever has more media power within and outside the country generally sets the tone of the rhetoric surrounding the conflict. Hence, the semantics of civil war are as important as the deed itself.
The insurgents and terrorists of one time may become legitimate political parties and revered leaders. It all depends on their success, and the political and legal systems built the “day after.” If these systems bear the qualities of internationally accepted norms on the rule of law and democracy, any negative rhetoric is dramatically altered for the better. We have seen this after the conclusion of many civil wars.
Take the American Civil War. Tourist guides in Washington, D.C., still refer to the Confederate Army as the “rebel” forces that reached the shores of the Potomac River. South Africa’s African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, was a “terrorist” outfit to the apartheid regime. Even our undisputed national hero, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was branded an insurgent by the Ottoman ruler and condemned to death. However, he succeeded in abolishing the sultanate and the caliphate that were the basis of the legitimacy of the Ottoman monarchy.
The same assessment is true for those who attempt and succeed in coups. Those who fail are executed as traitors. Those who succeed make the laws that clear themselves as the infallible new rulers of the country. Coups are generally realized during or at the brink of civil wars, with the intention of ending chaos and disunity. So, the semantics of civil wars are very much associated with power. Power creates the legal and institutional infrastructure to legitimize the newly won positions of power-holders.
What I am trying to get to is the Syrian conflict, which has reached the scale of a full-blown civil war. Unlike wars fought against a visible, identifiable, external enemy, civil wars are fought within, against a segment of citizens. There may be many reasons for the emergence and continuation of an internal conflict, but the most common reason is the combined effects of exclusion, repression and marginalization of a certain group distinguished for ethnic, religious, cultural or political differences. Hence, civil wars on the whole emanate from bad government. Therefore, the labeling of the “other side,” i.e., the non-governing group, is always problematic. Furthermore, in ethnically and religiously plural societies, each domestic group has an extension in neighboring countries. Any local conflict immediately becomes a regional one, thus facilitating rhetoric surrounding the “involvement of outsiders.”
In Syria, the two obvious contenders are the government forces and the opposition. The government is backed, by and large, by the Alawites, Christians and a segment of the Sunni upper and upper-middle classes. At least this was so at the beginning of the conflict. This gave a semblance of legitimacy to the government that has become increasingly violent and ruthless. The opposition is composed of diverse groups and peoples. Both sides have international supporters. The basic advantage of the government is that it still has possession of the state apparatus. Unless the opposition creates a semblance of a state mechanism in exile and garners considerable international support, the Assad government will maintain its advantage over the opposition in terms of recognition.
The point the Syrian strife has reached leaves no room for reconciliation or reform of the government. Both sides accuse the other of being illegitimate and resorting to terrorism, with the government of course being the side with a greater capacity for destruction in its hands. Government violence has increased in proportion to border on crimes against humanity. This interpretation is an open door to international intervention. So no “civil war” remains a domestic or national phenomenon in our day.