Syria's 16-month bloodbath crossed an important symbolic threshold Sunday as the International Committee of the Red Cross formally declared the conflict a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crimes prosecutions.
The Red Cross statement came as U.N. observers gathered new details on what happened in a village where dozens were reported killed in a regime assault. After a second visit to Tremseh on Sunday, the team said Syrian troops went door-to-door in the small farming community, checking residents' IDs and then killing some and taking others away.
The fighting in Tremseh was some of the latest in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, which activists say has killed 17,000 people. Violence continued Sunday, with more clashes reported around the capital, Damascus.
With the Red Cross declaring the conflict a civil war, that means international humanitarian law applies throughout the country. 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. The Geneva-based group's assessment is an important reference for determining how much and what type of force can be used, and it can form the basis for war crimes prosecutions, especially if civilians are attacked or detained enemies are abused or killed.
"We are now talking about a noninternational armed conflict in the country," Red Cross 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 Red Cross committee had restricted its assessment of the scope of the conflict to the hot spots of Idlib, Homs and Hama. But Hassan said the organization concluded that the violence was widening.
"Hostilities have spread to other areas of the country," he said. "International humanitarian law applies to all areas where hostilities are taking place."
Although the armed uprising in Syria began more than a year ago, the committee had hesitated to call it a civil war — though others, including United Nations officials, have done so.
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 Tremseh is interesting," she said.
Stephen Saideman, professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ontario, doubted whether the Red Cross declaration would change anything significant on either side.
Assad and his supporters won't stop fighting or change their tactics because they have too much to lose, Saideman said. The opposition "can have their spirits lifted by this, but they have been fighting a civil war for quite a while. So it is not clear how this announcement improves much their ability to recruit or to reduce divisions among the many rebel groups."
Both sides in the conflict have rejected the civil war label, with its implication of deep divisions among Syrians. The government says it is fighting a foreign-backed terrorist conspiracy. Rebels say they are battling to overthrow a criminal regime that has little popular support.
In the killings in Tremseh on Thursday, what happened continued to be a matter of dispute on Sunday. The Syrian government denied that it had used heavy weapons to attack the small farming community, although U.N. monitors documented substantial destruction that left scores dead and drew international condemnation.
The monitors said the attack, northwest of the city of Hama, appeared to target army defectors and activists. "Pools of blood and brain matter were observed in a number of homes," a U.N. statement said.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the violence was not a massacre — as activists and many foreign leaders have alleged — but a military operation targeting armed fighters who had taken control of the village.
"What happened wasn't an attack on civilians," Makdissi told reporters Sunday in Damascus. He said 37 gunmen and two civilians were killed — a far lower death toll than the one put forward by antiregime activists, some of whom estimated the dead at more than 100.
Information from the Los Angeles Times and New York Times was used in this report.