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Why It Matters Whether Syria Is Designated A Civil War

Government soldiers celebrate in the Al-Midan area of Damascus
UNITED NATIONS -- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) considers the situation in Syria a "noninternational armed conflict."

British Prime Minister David Cameron has called for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to step down or risk "civil war." Russian diplomats are careful to describe the fighting in Syria simply as an "armed conflict."

Meanwhile, the world body most heavily involved in trying to end the fighting -- the United Nations -- has been conspicuously vague in its official classification even as various UN officials have let slip with the "civil war" label.

When asked this week about the UN's official position on the wording issue, this was Secretary-General spokesperson Martin Nesirky's response.

"As we've said all along and as the international committee of the Red Cross has said, that classification, which applies in some parts of the country but not all of the country, has legal ramifications for international humanitarian law, and that's why it is an important classification and determination by the Red Cross," Nesirky said.

"Obviously it's important also for the mission too, if it has not already done so, to assess what that means in practical terms."

So what does that mean? Essentially, the UN follows the ICRC's lead in classifying the conflict. And that ICRC's classification carries weight for several reasons: it affects how diplomacy is carried out; it could help determine whether rebel or government forces could be charged for possible future war-crimes; and it has influence on whether certain rights -- including the universal right to life, right to free speech, and right to peaceful assembly -- must be upheld.

For example, when the ICRC earlier labeled three areas of Syria as being in a state of civil war -- Idlib, Homs, and Hama -- the UN agreed with the classification, leaving no doubt that those areas were considered subject to international humanitarian law.

'Greater Flexibility'

Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and United Nations expert, explains other potential repercussions of the "civil war" classification.

"If it's a civil war rather than a police action internally, it does appear to give the government greater flexibility in using overpowering force against an armed element that's now recognized as an internal belligerent," Laurenti said.

"You cannot line people up and shoot them, that remains an atrocity by any scale, whether you call it a civil war or not. But it does give somewhat greater color of legitimacy to military operations -- on either side."

Even if others struggle to define the Syrian conflict, ICRC spokesperson Alexis Heeb has expressed confidence in the assessments that Red Cross legal experts have been making on the ground since the beginning of the conflict.

He says that by declaring the conflict a civil war, combatants throughout the country are subject to international humanitarian law, which he believes will be a positive thing for the country.

"We want to make sure that even in the worst of times, of hostilities, there are certain criteria that have to be followed. In the case of noninternational armed conflict, we're talking about the protection of civilians, the protection of those who are not, or no longer, taking part in the hostilities -- they have to be protected, they have to be taken care of if they are wounded and so on," Heeb says.

"I'm talking about also, for example in terms of health care, victims and wounded people have to reach hospitals, but very importantly we have also to allow doctors, nurses, medical personnel driving ambulances, and so on, to be able to perform their job. This is very important and these appear under IHL [international humanitarian law] and it’s important to remember."