Last Thursday, Syrian government forces descended on the small farming town of Tremseh, killing scores of villagers with what U.N. observers reported as heavy weapons and helicopters. Early estimates had the death toll at more than 200; activists have since revised that figure to 103 people, mostly young men, that were killed.
Over the past 16 months, the U.N. estimates more than 10,000 lives have been lost in the violence, with some estimates by opposition activists running as high as 15,000. The Syrian government has long denied any involvement in atrocities. Over the weekend, a senior Syrian official responded to the Tremseh killings by saying the attack wasn’t on civilians and called accusations of heavy weapons use “baseless.”
Nonetheless, the most recent violence has been a last straw for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which declared the region under civil war just hours after the government’s latest denial.
“We are now talking about a non-international armed conflict in the country,” ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said on Sunday. “Hostilities have spread to other areas of the country. International humanitarian law applies to all areas where hostilities are taking place.”
What is international humanitarian law?
A result of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, international humanitarian law requires the humane treatment of war prisoners and proper care for the wounded and sick. According to Josh Lockman, an international law professor at the University of Southern California who spoke to Al Jazeera, not doing so puts those in power at risk of being tried in international courts for war crimes.
“With this application of international humanitarian law to the conflict, key regime officials could be held responsible for both massacres against civilians and also for the treatment of captured combatants, in this case rebel fighters, to the degree they’re abused, harmed or killed.”
Why doesn’t international humanitarian law apply during peacetime?
The main reason? Peacetime laws, which include the universal right to life, right to free speech and right to peaceful assembly, may be suspended during times of international humanitarian law.
While the law grants warring parties the right to use certain kinds of force to settle conflict, by setting clear parameters (and consequences), its goal is to protect civilians who choose not to take part in the conflict.
What does the Red Cross declaration mean for Syria?
By most accounts, the Bashar Al-Assad regime is beginning to crumble. Most telling has been the slew of recent defections from high ranking officials in Syria’s diplomatic and military elite, a move that CNN’s Fareed Zakaria calls an indication that opposition groups are already planning for a post-Assad Syria.
While the public threat of a war crime tribunal may not be enough to stem Al-Assad’s violence, it could continue the trend of defections and further weaken his hold on the country. In the meantime, it seems to have helped ramp up rhetoric from his supporters.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to a proposed U.N. peace agreement by denouncing it as “blackmail”: “They tell us that we should persuade Assad to step down of his own free will. That is simply not realistic.”
What does the Red Cross designation mean for the region?
As Wired’s Kris Alexander notes, lost in the shuffle of human rights violations is the fact that Syria is sitting on massive reserves of chemical weapons—yes, actual weapons of mass destruction. It could take upward of 75,000 troops to find and extinguish them all, a messy proposal even in the best of times, much less in the midst of civil war.
What is clear is that Syria remains an ideological, as well as physical, battleground. How those involved choose to resolve the conflict will have implications that go far beyond its borders.
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