Home/ Opinion / Decoding the idea of a civil war

This month marks the sixth anniversary of the onset of the Syrian civil war. The conflict has left over 400,000 dead and wrenched some 10 million Syrians out of their homes. Almost half of the latter have moved out of the country in search of safety.

The civil war in Syria is now acknowledged to be a major international catastrophe. But it is worth recalling that only in July 2012 did the International Committee of the Red Cross confirm that Syria was in the throes of an “armed conflict not of an international character"—the legal term for civil war.

Then again, was the conflict devoid of an international dimension given the involvement of at least seven other countries? Is it really possible to end the conflict without acknowledging head on this international character?

Such conceptual confusion and ambiguity has left its mark on successive diplomatic attempts at negotiating a ceasefire in Syria.

Yet, as David Armitage argues in a brilliant and timely book, Civil Wars: A History In Ideas, this is almost par for the course.

Drawing on a dazzling range of texts, Armitage shows that the very notion of civil war has been fraught from its origins in the ancient world down to our times. At the same time, while civil wars have been destructive of societies, they have been conceptually fecund. They have moulded and informed our ideas of politics and democracy, community and authority, international law and humanitarianism.

The Romans were not the first people to experience internecine warfare, but they were the first to experience it as “civil" war—a war among fellow citizens. Indeed, civil wars figured prominently in the classic works of Roman history, many of which posited a tight, if troubling, nexus between civil war and civilization.

The Romans identified two elements in a civil war, which would travel down the centuries. First, the conflict took place within the boundaries of a single political community. Second, there should be at least two contending parties in a civil war, one with a legitimate claim of authority.

Roman texts and ideas on civil wars left a deep imprint on late medieval and early modern European thinkers. The tumultuous conflicts in Rome provided a fertile ground for Machiavelli’s ruminations on the travails of his age.

Drawing on Roman legal conceptions, Hugo Grotius divided wars into public and private as well as “civil" and “foreign". Though he left unclear the crucial question of whether civil war could be justified on both sides.

The challenge of civil war was central to the political thought of Thomas Hobbes. Rejecting the Roman idea of civil war taking place within the civitas, Hobbes held that the sovereign power was constituted precisely to secure peace and prevent war. So, civil war was something of an oxymoron.

John Locke went further in arguing that civil war amounted to the extinction of the commonwealth until just authority could be restored.

The revolutions of the 18th century introduced a further distinction between civil wars and revolutions. While the former was regarded as senseless violence actuated by base motives, the latter came to be seen as transformative and driven by high ideals.

This is, Armitage observes, “a fundamental assumption of modern politics". It is certainly tenacious. As a Syrian businessman remarked on the entry of assorted jihadist groups into the conflict, “This is not a revolution against a regime any more, this is a civil war."

The American and French revolutions touched off another long-standing debate: the conditions under which external intervention in a civil war was justified.

The Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel set the parameters of the discussion. External powers could intervene in a civil war, either to mediate a peace or by force, provided one of the parties “requests their assistance or accepts the offer of it".

Following Vattel, Edmund Burke argued in 1791 that France was actually undergoing a civil war, not a revolution and hence Britain should intervene on behalf of the French king.

Emmanuel Kant held, by contrast, that intervention would only be justified when an internal conflict had become “critical": when each party laid claim to the entire state.

Over the next century, these discussions were joined by attempts at civilizing civil wars—principally by extending the provisions of international humanitarian law to internal conflicts. Armitage traces these efforts as deftly as he treats political thinkers of an earlier period. He also underscores the ironic consequences of these well-meaning efforts.

The attempt to regulate civil wars with legal norms has made states, especially the major powers, chary of labelling conflicts as civil wars. “The very name ‘civil war’", Armitage writes, “can bring legitimacy to forms of violence that would otherwise be suppressed or decried."

By the same token, those taking up arms against a state are eager to embrace the label of civil war, for it can “bring with it recognition from the international community, and in turn the possibility of various kinds of external support". The concept of civil war, in short, has become a crucial weapon in civil wars.

These problems are worth pondering as we wearily anticipate yet another international effort to contain the Syrian conflict. Armitage offers no pat answers to current predicaments, but his deeply learned and elegant book suggests what questions might be worth asking.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Comments are welcome at

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Updated: 20 Mar 2017, 03:50 AM IST
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