Inside Syria

Is Syria in a state of civil war?

As fighting escalates, we ask why the international community is reluctant to call the conflict a civil war.

As Syrian government forces intensify attacks from the air and on the ground aimed at stamping out opposition strongholds from Aleppo and elsewhere, the world is asking whether or not Syria is in a state of civil war.

Any change in status of the conflict would mean combatants would be subjects to the Geneva Conventions, potentially allowing prosecutions for war crimes.

Of course there is civil war in Syria, this is not news. It has been continuing for the past 17 months, but somehow because of corrupt semantics people prefer to call it ‘unrest, opposition movement, freedom movement’ – whatever.

– Yusuf Kanli, a columnist & former editor of Hurriyet Daily News

In July, the International Committee of the Red Cross described the fighting in Syria as a civil war. A month before, Herve Ladsous, the UN’s head of peacekeeping also said the country was in a state of civil war.

Syrian authorities say speaking about civil war in the country contradicts reality – all the while inside the country civilians continue to pay a heavy price as the battles continue to claim thousands of lives.

Zeina Khodr, reporting from Aleppo, says: “The areas where the opposition has set up base have been coming under heavy bombardment. More often than not the civilians who remain here are the ones who are getting killed and injured. The shelling and strikes have been described as indiscriminate.”

So, what is the definition of a civil war? What changes when a conflict is officially declared a civil war? Is Syria in a state of civil war? And if so, why is the international community reluctant to say so?

Inside Syria, with presenter Stephen Cole, discusses with guests: Rafif Jouejati, a Syrian opposition activist and a spokeswoman for the Syrian Local Coordination Committee; Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House; and Yusuf Kanli, a columnist and former editor of the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News.

“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 spokeswoman


  • It is a high-intensity conflict between organised groups within the same nation state or Republic
  • The aim of one side may be to take control of the country or a region
  • Another category of a civil war is involving regular armed forces, which are sustained, organised and large-scale
  • Large numbers of casualties and the consumption of significant resources would also constitute a civil war
  • The 1949 Geneva Conventions lays out the rules of war
  • The ICRC will hold the combatants involved accountable to the Geneva conventions and this means that both sides of the conflict, the Syrian government and the opposition, could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity


  • UN: More than 17,000 people were killed in Syria since the start of unrest
  • 200,000 Syrian refugees are registered in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq
  • The Turkish government says 66,000 Syrian refugees are now in Turkey
  • UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos: Up to 2,5 million people need aid in Syria
  • Over a million people displaced inside Syria because of fighting
  • Ban Ki-moon wants to set up a UN ‘political office’ in Syria
  • The UN decided not to extend the mandate of its observer mission
  • Many including a former PM and military generals have defected