Red Cross calls Syria uprising a civil war

Syria, Tremseh, observers
UN observers inspect a bombarded school in the Syrian village of Tremseh, where more than 150 people were killed this week, in the central province of Hama on July 14, 2012. Syria denied its armed forces carried out a massacre in Treimsa but said 37 gunmen and two civilians were killed in clashes there with rebels. Rights activists say more than 150 people were massacred in Treimsa, which if confirmed would make it one of the bloodiest episodes of Syria's 16-month uprising.
Pierre Torres/AFP/GettyImages

(CBS News) The fighting in Syria appeared to reach the capital of Damascus Sunday, with reports of street fighting in two neighborhoods and smoke from an explosion seen rising over the skyline.

The bloody uprising has gone on for 16 months and has claimed more than 10,000 lives. Now, the International Committee of the Red Cross is calling it a civil war, which could have significant repercussions for the future of the conflict.

By declaring the Syrian conflict a civil war, it means that both sides are now held to international humanitarian laws, known as the rules of war as dictated by the Geneva Convention. Under these rules anyone who commits attacks on civilians can be charged with war crimes. The rules also protect prisoners of war, they forbid torture, and they dictate the wounded must receive treatment.

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Essentially, this designation is aimed at protecting civilians and possibly paving the way for future prosecutions of war crimes.

The Red Cross has three primary criteria that it uses to assess whether a country is in a civil war: They look at the length of time that the conflict is going on, the intensity of fighting, and the level of organization of rebel forces. In the case of Syria, they determined that the fighting had spilled out beyond the original hotspots of Idlib, Hama and Homs and is therefore a nationwide civil war.

What happened in the village of Tremseh on Thursday has some hallmarks of civil war. The opposition called it a massacre. However, UN observers were finally given access to Tremseh and their findings appear to indicate that defectors and opposition activists were the target of the military operation, not civilians. This differs from the opposition's account which described a massacre of civilians. All of this really gives a sense of just how difficult it is to get to the bottom of these types of events, with almost no independent reporting allowed in the country and misinformation being disseminated on both sides.

  • Clarissa Ward
    Clarissa Ward

    Foreign Correspondent, CBS News