The language of war

Labelling violence in Syria as civil war would have repercussions: the law of war would apply to both government and opposition fighters.


    A high-level UN official stated that the conflict in Syria has erupted into a state of civil war. 

    "I think one can say that," said Herve Ladsous, UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping, to a group of reporters, when asked whether the violence in Syria could be qualified as a civil war.

    "Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territories and several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control of these areas," Ladsous said.

    Yet it is doubtful that the rest of the international community will immediately follow suit.

    It generally falls on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which holds a special status under the Geneva Conventions, to define a conflict as civil war or what it refers to as a "non-international armed conflict".

    It is defined by both the intensity and the organisation of violence.

    'Huge upscaling'

    Indeed, in recent days UN monitors have witnessed a "huge upscaling of the military confrontations" by government forces seeking to retake territory and opposition fighters attacking urban areas and civilian infrastructure, according to Kieran Dwyer, a spokesperson for the UN Department of Peacekeeping.

    But although the ICRC has stated that civil war has erupted in some areas of Syria, it has been reluctant to apply the label to the full territory of Syria because of the risk of losing humanitarian access, which was carefully negotiated with the Syrian government, according to one UN official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

    It is also unlikely that others diplomats will define the conflict as a civil war, because labelling the conflict as such has repercussions under international law.

    For one, the laws of war would apply to both the Syrian government and opposition fighters.

    "It means there is a responsibility on the part of the belligerents - clearly the state [of Syria], but also the insurgents – to take prisoners, to allow people to surrender, to exercise great caution with non-combatant casualties," said Michael Doyle, a former special adviser to the UN secretary-general and a leading expert in international law. 

    "To treat the other side as combatants and not just criminals: prisoners can't be interrogated, can't be tortured."

    Potential setback

    It would be a setback to the Syrian government, which has justified its violent response against the opposition by saying it has been subject to a "terrorist campaign".

    "The Syrian state is confronting highly trained armed men who bear sophisticated arms and mean to kill, slaughter and perpetrate acts of terrorism," Bashar Jaafari, Syria's ambassador to the UN, said in a recent letter to the Security Council.

    "The Syrian state is responsible for protecting the Syrian people from those men and will carry out its duties in full, just as any other country in the world would that was facing what the Syrian people are facing."

    And any new language could also help place the conflict more squarely on the agenda of the UN Security Council, which has primary responsibility under international law to prevent war and maintain international peace and security.

    But some members – notably Russia and China - are not likely to let this shift happen.

    "The UN Security Council's primary responsibility is to prevent war, and clearly acknowledging that a [civil] war is going on should get their attention," Michael Doyle said.

    "But the qualification is that the Security Council has unfettered discretion as to whether they should get involved. Russia and China still hold veto power."




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