When we talk about a civil war, we instantly think of the Lebanese conflict – in which the sectarian element mingled with ideology and regional struggles – or the events that took place in the former Yugoslavia, where violence took on an ethnic dimension. However, people tend to forget that the most notorious civil war in modern history was the Spanish civil war between 1936 and 1939. This revolved around the very identity of the state, and was waged between ultranationalists on the one hand, and a mixture of Spanish leftists on the other, the latter with foreign backing from the global left-wing movement.
With regards to the Syrian crisis, providing an accurate description of the situation can be very confusing. This was made apparent by the controversial comments of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s new international envoy, who said explicitly that what is required now is not to prevent a civil war in Syria, but rather to bring it to an end, implying that a civil conflict is already taking place on the ground.
Yet this only adds to the confusion because the elements of a civil war are not present in Syria. At the beginning, the entire spectrum of the Syrian people staged an ordinary, peaceful uprising, having been driven mad by decades of restlessness. They rose up against a rigid, totalitarian regime that had achieved nothing politically, and had failed to offer anything economically. The Syrian protestors were seeking to channel the experiences of both Tunisia and Egypt, and they never expected the al-Assad regime to react in a manner whereby bullets would be fired at peaceful demonstrators. This response caused the uprising to gradually shift into an armed revolution, which the regime is repelling everyday by escalating its use of force. Bullets have become mortar shells, and now tanks, missiles and aircraft are being used.
The images uploaded every day on the internet – whether by the opposition or by the regime and its Shabiha forces – are reminiscent of the massacres that were committed in Bosnia in the 1990s. On the other hand, the scenes of mass shelling and demolished houses and neighborhoods are all reminiscent of the scenes of the civil war in Lebanon.
It is no secret that some believe the Syrian crisis, in the worst-case scenario, could follow a similar course to the events in the Balkans in the 1990s. Some support this argument by citing the threats made by the al-Assad regime and its adherers, warning that they will export the crisis and set the entire region on fire. We may be witnessing the beginning of this with clashes in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, and with Turkey’s complaints that Syria is inciting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). A second scenario, reflected in the statements of Syrian and Hezbollah officials, sounds more Lebanese. These officials propose to enter into dialogue on equal footing after the fighting stops, where neither party will be declared the winner or the loser, and may God be merciful with those who were killed.
The truth is that neither a Balkan nor Lebanese style settlement will be appropriate for Syria. This is because no crisis is exactly the same as another even if the features seem similar, and similarly, solutions of the past cannot be applied to the present because each era has its own dimensions and mechanisms. The battles taking place now in Syria may constitute a civil war, yet it is a fight between a regime and its beneficiaries on the one hand, and ordinary people on the other. The demands of these ordinary people are, and always have been, freedom and social justice. We did not hear anyone within the opposition advocating the exclusion of certain Syrian groups, or for a specific region to be granted independence. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that it is only the al-Assad regime that is seeking to do so.