The International Committee of the Red Cross has said it now considers the Syrian conflict a civil war, as activists reported intense battles between rebels and government forces in the capital, Damascus.
The Geneva-based group’s assessment could have implications for prosecutions for war crimes and means that international humanitarian law applies throughout the country, though it will have little effect on the ground. Also known as the rules of war, humanitarian law grants all parties in a conflict the right to use appropriate force to achieve their aims.
“We are now talking about a non-international armed conflict in the country,” ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said on Sunday.
Previously, the Red Cross committee had restricted its assessment of the scope of the conflict to the hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama. But Hassan said the organisation concluded that the violence was widening.
“Hostilities have spread to other areas of the country,” Hassan said. “International humanitarian law applies to all areas where hostilities are taking place.”
The qualification means that people who order or commit attacks on civilians including murder, torture and rape, or use disproportionate force against civilian areas, can be charged with war crimes in violation of international humanitarian law.
War crimes prosecutions would have been possible even without the Red Cross statement. But Sunday’s pronouncement adds weight to any prosecution argument that Syria is in a state of war – a prerequisite for a war crimes case.