It’s hard to know how the conflict in Syria could be classed as anything other than a civil war. Yesterday, the International Committee of the Red Cross finally agreed and branded it such. Their announcement follows the Tremseh massacre last week and some of the heaviest fighting in Damascus since the conflict began – a development invested with huge significance because of the premium Assad has placed on maintaining calm in the capital.
It all reflects the gains being made by the Free Syrian Army. So far, the Red Cross has only regarded Homs, Hama, and Idlib as active war zones but this overlooks gains being made by the FSA elsewhere.
The FSA now controls areas just north of Damascus including Zamalka and Irbeen, and controls most of the Idlib Governorate, the North-Western province of Syria bordering Turkey. These territories all stretch north of Damascus, along the Western edge of Syria where most of the fighting has been concentrated. Yet, the FSA has also been making quiet advances away from these areas. It is now believed to enjoy almost complete control over Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s seventh largest city located well on its eastern flank. In the south, around Douma, the FSA has made some modest gains too, creating a small buffer zone near the Jordanian border.
As momentum shifts decisively in favour of the rebels, the intensity of Assad’s crackdown will only increase. Declaring the conflict a civil war means that fighters and civilians will now, in theory, be covered by the Geneva Convention although there is little expectation that Assad will abide by such norms. From a regime that has fetishised killing, turning a Nelsonian eye to the execution of babies, nothing by way of restraint can be expected.
But the Red Cross’ announcement is not merely academic. With the Geneva Convention now coming into effect, Syrian leaders will be more exposed to legal measures including potential prosecution for war crimes. This is the real effect of yesterday’s announcement, increasing scrutiny of the regime’s actions and forcing those around Assad to consider their potential culpability in any future prosecutions. In light of last week’s high profile military and diplomatic defections, the threat of legal sanction could yet inspire more to abandon Assad’s sinking ship.