GENEVA- Syria's crisis crossed an important threshold as the international Red Cross (ICRC) formally on Sunday declared the conflict a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crimes prosecutions.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Sunday it now considers the conflict in Syria a civil war, meaning international humanitarian law applies throughout the country.
The declaration came as opposition fighters battled Syrian government forces in Damascus.
The Geneva-based ICRC group's assessment is an important reference that helps parties in a conflict determine how much and what type of force they can or cannot use.
ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said Sunday that the humanitarian law now applies wherever hostilities are taking place in Syria, where fighting has spread beyond the hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama.
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.
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 ICRC had restricted its assessment of the scope of the conflict to the hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama, but Hassan said the organization had determined the violence has widened.
"Hostilities have spread to other areas of the country," Hassan told The Associated Press. "International humanitarian law applies to all areas where hostilities are taking place." Hassan added.
Although the armed uprising in Syria began more than a year ago, the ICRC has previously hesitated to call it a civil war — though others, including United Nations officials, have.
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.
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 al-Treimseh 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.
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 in the country.