Dire warnings that Kofi Annan's United Nations-sponsored peace mission is the "last chance" to avert full-blown civil war in Syria may add urgency to so-far unheeded calls for a ceasefire, but they also misrepresent the crisis.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal, ongoing attacks on his own people, his shelling of cities and deployment of helicopter gunships to wipe out resistance, may be horrific and unwarranted. But the nation is hardly on the verge of civil war.
Syria is gripped in a brutally suppressed uprising. That suppression may become even more brutal and bloody but – to date – the violence is so one-sided and the opposition so disparate and disorganized, that chances of civil war seem remote, or perhaps hopeless.
Civil wars, fought to topple existing regimes or secede from them, need far more than widespread, occasionally violent, unrest of the sort currently seizing Syria.
And several outcomes far removed from civil war of the Libyan kind could end Syria's internal violence. President al-Assad could be ousted by his own military, as was Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, although the domination of the President's minority Alawite sect atop the army and throughout elite security units makes that far less likely. Still, Romania's vicious dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed when his own army balked at the mass murder of unarmed citizens in downtown Bucharest.
Loose talk of sliding into civil war could also serve – perversely – to actually delegitimize the Syrian pro-democracy movement. Armed conflict to topple the internationally recognized government of a UN member state remains unlawful, unless and until the al-Assad regime is deemed illegitimate, as was that of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi last summer.
Syria's grim toll of more than 9,000 killed in 13 months is horrific, but a far cry from the casualty levels of a society of 22 million people at war. In Bosnia's civil war, more than 100,000 were killed out of a population one-third the size of Syria's and more than one million others were displaced.
Nor do rising body counts make a civil war. Thirty years ago, Hafez al-Assad, the current president's far-more-brutal father, infamously crushed a Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Hama. More than 30,000 were killed in days.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein similarly wiped out tens of thousands of Kurds and Shia, ruthlessly vanquishing failed uprisings with a brutality verging on genocide. Yet Iraq never neared civil war until after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam.
Repression – no matter how wanton or bloody – only rarely tips into civil war. Joseph Stalin killed 30 million but the Soviet Union imploded, mostly peacefully, a half-century later.
For Syria's violence to slide into civil war, the insurgency or uprising needs support, territory and weapons. Currently none of those exist, although they could emerge.
To wage war against the regime, the insurgents need some sort of territorial base, perhaps in the north along the Turkish border, a coalescing of opposition forces – even if it's only a marriage of convenience for the duration – and firepower. The latter could come from outside suppliers – as happened in Libya despite the supposed arms embargo on both sides – or from breakaway units of the Syrian military, as also happened in Libya.
So far the armed uprising, which eclipsed peaceful demonstrations months ago, is small, scattered and – whenever confronted by the massed forces of the state – losing.
"Lack of sophisticated hardware, effective leadership and nation-wide co-ordination, has meant that the FSA (Free Syrian Army) has had to retreat in the face of overwhelming firepower," Malik Al-Abdeh, a British-based opponent of the al-Assad regime, wrote in a carefully reasoned assessment of the military imbalance on the Syria In Transition website.
"The FSA is not only incapable of holding ground, its repeated attempts to do so risk losing it the support of the civilian population," he added. "Regime forces have little compunction about shelling residential areas where the FSA are holed up, and it means that more, rather than fewer, civilians die."
Civil war may eventually engulf Syria, especially if Mr. al-Assad fails to crush demonstrations and silence dissent or if outside powers provide heavier weapons and create and protect an enclave from Syrian military assault.
To date, internal armed opposition in Syria is far too limited, too weak and bereft of the necessary to warrant hopes – or fears – of a full-blown civil war.