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Why it's time to call Syria a civil war

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Edlib News Network ENN/AP

(Read caption) This citizen journalism image purports to show Syrian rebels gathered on their vehicle in the northern town of Kfar Nebel, in Idlib province, Syria, Tuesday, June 5.

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Warning that Syria "risks" falling into a civil war appears to be among the last cards being played in the tragic diplomatic dance around what should be done about the bloody uprising against Bashar al-Assad's Baath regime in Syria.

Depending on a country's view of the issue, the threat of a civil war breaking out is an argument for the international community to do more (though precisely what isn't exactly clear), or to do nothing, since foreign intervention will bring on that feared outcome even faster.

But the fact is that Syria has been in a civil war for quite some time. A generally accepted definition of a civil war is a fight for control of a nation, involving the state, one or more non-state actors, and at least 1,000 battlefield casualties. Syria's uprising is more than a year old, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 13,000 people have died in the fighting so far, with 2,400 dead since the middle of this April alone.

Various armed factions opposed to Mr. Assad operate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and have been conducting ambushes of government troops. Assad has mustered regular troops, who have heavily shelled neighborhoods in Homs, Hama, and other towns that host rebel supporters, killing armed supporters and unarmed men, women and children alike. Irregular militias loyal to Assad, called shabiha and generally drawn from the Alawite sect Assad belongs to, have been increasingly active. Shabiha have been blamed for the massacre of 108 civilians, many of them children, outside Houla two weeks ago.

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