Red Cross - Syrian conflict is civil war

2012-07-15 22:54

Damascus - Syria's 16-month bloodbath crossed an important symbolic threshold on Sunday as the international Red Cross formally declared the conflict a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crimes prosecutions.

The Red Cross statement came as United Nations observers gathered new details on what happened in a village where dozens were reported killed in a regime assault. After a second visit to Tremseh on Sunday, the team said Syrian troops went door-to-door in the small farming community, checking residents' IDs and then killing some and taking others away.

According to the UN, the attack appeared to target army defectors and activists.

"Pools of blood and brain matter were observed in a number of homes," a UN statement said.

Syria denied UN claims that government forces had used heavy weapons such as tanks, artillery and helicopters during the attack on Thursday.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jihad Makdissi said the violence was not a massacre - as activists and many foreign leaders have alleged - but a military operation targeting armed fighters who had taken control of the village.

"What happened wasn't an attack on civilians," Makdissi told reporters Sunday in Damascus. He said 37 gunmen and two civilians were killed - a far lower death toll than the one put forward by anti-regime activists, some of whom estimated the dead at more than 100.

"What has been said about the use of heavy weapons is baseless," Makdissi added.

The UN has implicated President Bashar Assad's forces in the assault. The head of the UN observer mission said on Friday that monitors stationed near Tremseh saw the army using heavy weaponry and attack helicopters.

Rules of war

The fighting was some of the latest in the uprising against Assad, which activists say has killed more than 17 000 people. Violence continued on Sunday, with more clashes reported around the capital, Damascus.

The bloodshed appeared to be escalating. On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it now considers the Syrian conflict a civil war, meaning international humanitarian law applies throughout the country.

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. The Geneva-based group's assessment is an important reference for determining how much and what type of force can be used, and it can form the basis for war crimes prosecutions, especially if civilians are attacked or detained enemies are abused or killed.

"We are now talking about a non-international armed conflict in the country," ICRC spokesperson Hicham Hassan said.

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.

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."

Although the armed uprising in Syria began more than a year ago, the committee had hesitated to call it a civil war - though others, including United Nations officials, have done so.

That is because the rules of war override and to some extent suspend the laws that apply in peacetime, including the universal right to life, right to free speech and right to peaceful assembly.

Pools of blood

When the Red Cross says something "it's always very persuasive," said Louise Doswald-Beck, a professor of international law at the Geneva Graduate Institute. In legal terms, that means a court would be unlikely to decide differently.

As an internal conflict officially becomes a civil war, the security environment shifts from regular law enforcement to a situation in which international law permits the government to attack rebel fighters, Doswald-Beck said.

"That's why this whole business of Tremseh is interesting," she said.

Stephen M Saideman, professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ontario, Canada, doubted whether the Red Cross declaration would change anything significant on either side.

Assad and his supporters won't stop fighting or change their tactics because they have too much to lose, Saideman said. The opposition "can have their spirits lifted by this, but they have been fighting a civil war for quite a while. So it is not clear how this announcement improves much their ability to recruit or to reduce divisions among the many rebel groups."

On Saturday, UN observers entered Tremseh, a community of 6 000 to 10 000 people in a farming region along the Orontes River northwest of the city of Hama. They found pools of blood in homes, along with spent bullets, mortars and artillery shells. The evidence added to the emerging picture of what anti-regime activists have called one of the deadliest events of the uprising.

Dozens of bodies have already been buried in a mass grave or burned beyond recognition, and activists were struggling to determine the number of people killed. Estimates range from 100 to more than 150 dead.

Strict police state

Activists expect those figures to rise since hundreds of residents remain unaccounted for. Locals believe some bodies are still in nearby fields and others were probably dumped in the river.

Some of the evidence suggested that, rather than the outright shelling of civilians depicted by the opposition, the violence in Tremseh may have been a lopsided fight between the army pursuing the opposition and activists and locals trying to defend the village. Nearly all of the dead are men, including dozens of armed rebels.

Independent verification of the events is nearly impossible in Syria, one of the Middle East's strictest police states, which bars most media from working independently within its borders. The observers are in the country as part of a faltering peace plan by UN special envoy Kofi Annan, who has been trying for months to negotiate a solution to Syria's crisis.

Although much of the international community has turned on Assad, Damascus still has some key allies - including Russia and Iran. The Kremlin announced Sunday that Annan will meet President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

Also Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Tehran is ready to invite Syrian opposition groups and government envoys for talks, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.

Any proposal from Iran is likely to be rebuffed by rebel groups, which have rejected negotiations with Assad's government and have criticized Tehran for standing by its allies in Damascus. But the offer suggested Iran is seeking a more active role in mediation efforts after Annan's visit last week to Tehran.

  • fred.fraser.12 - 2012-07-15 23:34

    Makdissi, you'd be well advised to abandon the sinking ship that is Assad's regime, and take as many top people with you as possible. The alternative is Gaddafi or Mubarak's fate.

  • fidel.mgoqi - 2012-07-15 23:34

    What is emerging is that this was a fight between FSA and regime troops and it went bad for FSA, the only video released shows the bodies to be of males at fighting age. Question is where are all the civilian victims as this was claimed. 200 massacred my foot and all these so called massacres happening before important UNSC meetings? "At this stage, though we do not yet have the final count, the number of civilians killed by shelling is not more than seven," an anti-Assad “activist” known as “Jaafar” with the Sham News Network (SNN) told the AFP press agency. "The rest were members of the [Western-backed] Free Syrian Army.”

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-07-16 00:00

      Fidel chooses to hold an immature core belief that "the West is evil". This leads him to distort reality and unwittingly support the open slaughter of Muslim civilians by brutal unelected dictators.

      AnthonyfromAfrica - 2012-07-16 00:51

      As long as Fidel can spew some anti Western sentiments , nothing else matters. It matters no longer, what the UN observers on the ground say, nor the HRW, Nor Amnesty International, nor the Red Cross, nor what ANYBODY else says , besides this terrorist assad . Fidel's comment, as usual, is silly and childish !!!

      ryan.a.smith.3958 - 2012-07-16 02:27

      the Red Cross basically implied youre an idiot Fidel. one of the most credible organizations on earth, and youre still disbelieving. and even if it was members of the Free Syrian Army, the point is that Assad went to that village and hunted them down one by one, execution style when their was supposed to be a ceasefire ! (and how did they even know for sure which men were active fighters hey ???) the Free Syrian army did not march out from that village to attack. those guys were killed in their homes. like I said, you dont believe the UN, you dont believe the media, you dont believe the US, you dont believe Britain and now you dont believe the Red Cross either. I take it back, youre worse than an idiot Fidel

      ryan.a.smith.3958 - 2012-07-16 02:35

      I dont pretend to have all the answers. but its easy enough to fill in the blanks when you have some facts. Fact 1) Assad is a dictator and was not elected in free and fair elections. Fact 2) clearly the people are unhappy about that situation and wanted change. who wouldnt f@cking want freedom and rights. the other developments in the Middle east gave them courage. Fact 3) clearly Assad doesn't want to leave or he would have left already. .... now with simply those facts, you can work out that the only thing Assad could do was initially try make some reforms (which apparently he tried to do some minor reforms to save his position in the beginning .. but then he f*cked up by shooting at the peaceful protesters) OR blast all opposition into oblivion. and you can see that thats exactly what he is doing .. trying to blast them into oblivion

      ryan.a.smith.3958 - 2012-07-16 02:36

      read and understand those FACTS Fidel !

      AnthonyfromAfrica - 2012-07-16 05:03

      Thanks to the Red Cross, there is now clearity to this popular uprising! No more silly talk of foreign soldiers, and who backs whom. This is a CIVIL WAR. The population against their dictator/tyrant. And the FSA, is NOT an army as such. It are defectors of thr Syrian Terrorists army, who no longer wanted to murder their own people. They are no longer soldiers, but have joined the opposition, and are now ARMED OPPOSITION MEMBERS. They have ALL THE RIGHT, to protect the Syrian population, and ALL THE RIGHT to fight this monstrous army of THUGS!! Russia is not going to determine their future; The Syrian people will do that themselves!!!!!

  • tommo.too - 2012-07-16 00:41

    There are two countries responsible for this. They have done everything they can NOT to help. Russia and China. The Syrians will never forget them. They will be hated forevermore.

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