Declaration by International Committee of the Red Cross means humanitarian law now applies to all participants in the conflict.
Syria conflict declared civil war
BEIRUT // The conflict in Syria is a civil war, the International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday, paving the way for possible prosecutions for war crimes.
The organisation's declaration 16 months after protests began against the regime of Bashar Al Assad means that international humanitarian law applies to the conduct of Syrian officials, soldiers and rebels for war crimes. Opposition activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed in the hostilities, most of them civilians.
As the custodian of the Geneva Conventions - which lays out rules of war - the ICRC is regarded as the most authoritative interpreter of international law as it applies to war and internal armed conflict.
"We are now talking about a non-international armed conflict in the country," its spokesman Hicham Hassan said yesterday.
The Geneva-based humanitarian organisation had said previously the hostilities could be described as localised civil war between regime forces and opposition fighters in certain parts of the country - Homs, Hama and Idlib.
"Hostilities have spread to other areas of the country," Mr Hassan said. "International humanitarian law applies to all areas where hostilities are taking place."
Applying the term civil war, or internal armed conflict, means that those who order or commit attacks on civilians, or use indiscriminate force against civilian areas, can be charged with war crimes. It also informs all sides in the conflict of their obligations under international humanitarian law.
Parties to a conflict must distinguish between the civilian population and combatants.
"What matters is that international humanitarian law applies wherever hostilities between government forces and opposition groups are taking place across the country," Mr Hassan said.
The ICRC's criteria for non-international armed conflict are the intensity and duration of fighting, and the level of organisation of rebels fighting against government forces.
In late June, Mr Al Assad, the Syrian president, announced that his country was in a state of war. The government has said that at least 4,000 members of its security forces have been killed by the "armed terrorist groups" it blames for the crisis.
Yesterday, the government denied accusations that its forces used heavy weapons or helicopters on Thursday against the village of Tremseh, where activists say a massacre took place.
Opposition groups have said between 100 and 200 people were killed in the central Syria village, after heavy shelling followed by a ground attack by armed militiamen loyal to the regime.
On Friday, the United Nations-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan said he was "shocked and appalled" by the use of heavy weapons including artillery, tanks and helicopters on Tremseh, describing it as a "violation of the government's undertaking to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres".
Jihad Makdissi, Syria's foreign ministry spokesman, yesterday rejected Mr Annan's accusations, denied villagers were targeted and said security forces killed 37 fighters and two civilians in a military operation targeting rebel fighters in the village.
"Government forces did not use planes, or helicopters, or tanks or artillery. The heaviest weapon used was an RPG [rocket propelled grenade]," Mr Makdissi said.
"What happened was not a massacre … what happened was a military operation. There were clashes between security forces, whose duty is to defend civilians, and heavily armed forces that don't believe in a political solution."
The head of the UN's observer mission to Syria, Major General Robert Mood, said on Friday members of his team who were nearby Tremseh on Thursday reported the use of attack helicopters and heavy weaponry.
A team of monitors who entered the village on Saturday found bullets, artillery shells and mortar rounds, as well as pools of blood in some of the homes. The violence seemed to target the homes of army defectors and activists, according to the UN observers.
Yesterday, at least 46 people were killed in fighting across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of opposition activists. Most of the deaths were reported in the Homs province.
Heavy clashes between rebels and regular troops also erupted in Damascus yesterday, in the most intense fighting in the capital since the start of the uprising. "The regular army fired mortar rounds into several suburbs" where rebels of the Free Syrian Army are entrenched, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
As the international community continues to grapple with how to end the conflict, Russia announced yesterday that its president, Vladimir Putin, is to meet Mr Annan tomorrow. Russia, a Syrian ally, has opposed tougher action against the Assad regime, but Mr Annan is expected to try to push Moscow to do more to end the fighting.
Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said yesterday that Tehran - another Syrian government ally - is ready to host talks between the regime and opposition groups.
The head of the main Syrian opposition group also said yesterday the US president, Barack Obama, must not wait until his re-election to take action to stop the bloodshed in Syria,
"We would like to say to President Obama that waiting for election day to make the right decision on Syria is unacceptable for Syrians," Abdulbaset Saida, president of the Syria National Council, told CNN. "We cannot understand that a superpower ignores the killing of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians because of an election campaign that a president may win or lose."
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters