UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The 15-month-old conflict in Syria has grown into a full-scale civil war in which the government is attempting to recapture large swathes of urban territory it has lost to the opposition, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said on Tuesday.
“Yes, I think we can say that,” U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous said in an interview when asked if the Syrian crisis has become a civil war.
“Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory in several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control of these areas,” he said.
It is the first time a senior U.N. official has declared that the Syrian conflict is a civil war.
“Now we have confirmed reports of not only the use of tanks and artillery but also attack helicopters,” Ladsous said. “This is really becoming large scale.”
One U.N. Security Council diplomat described Ladsous’ statement as a “big deal” that could have implications for council discussions on next steps for the conflict.
“It highlights the importance of breaking the deadlock on the council, which has prevented us from pressuring Damascus to stop its attacks and human rights violations,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has said the fighting in Syria is so intense in parts of the country that at times it has qualified as a localized civil war, though it has stopped short of saying Syria was in the throes of civil war.
An ICRC declaration of the Syrian crisis as an “internal armed conflict” would have legal implications in terms war crimes and compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
Ladsous’ declaration may not have any legal implications, though it could carry political weight, possibly making some countries on the U.N. Security Council less inclined to renew the U.N. observer mission’s mandate next month.
U.S. and European officials have said the escalation of the conflict in Syria occurred because Russia used its U.N. Security Council veto to prevent the 15-nation body from imposing sanctions on Damascus to force it to halt its assault on an uprising that began as a peaceful pro-democracy movement.
That uprising has become increasingly violent in recent months, as the outgunned rebels have turned to bomb attacks and guerilla-war tactics against the government forces. The United Nations has also warned about the appearance of extremist elements.
Russia is a staunch ally of Syria, which remains one of the top purchasers of Russian weapons.
Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the Syrian crisis risked becoming a civil war imminently.
Ladsous was asked if there was any point in keeping the observer force in Syria if the conflict was a civil war.
“Keeping a peacekeeping force when there is definitely no peace to observers - that summarizes the situation,” he said. “An observer mission which cannot observe a ceasefire because there is no ceasefire.”
The 90-day mandate of the 300-member U.N. Security Council-mandated unarmed observer force comes up for renewal in late July. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has suggested that the council might not renew the mandate if the Syrian government continues to flout U.N. peace efforts.
Rice also said last month that if the council does not take swift action to pressure Syria to end its assault on the opposition, member nations may have no choice but to consider acting outside the United Nations.
The deployment of observers was part of international mediator Kofi Annan’s peace plan, which the government and rebels accepted earlier this year. The truce never took hold.
Ladsous said the force’s fate might hinge on attempts to get a political process started by forming a “contact group,” as called for by Annan and Russia.
Annan’s idea for the group is to bring together the five permanent Security Council members with countries in the region like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But the United States and some European countries dislike the idea of including Iran, which they say is part of the problem in Syria.
Ladsous also spoke of a shooting attack on U.N. monitors in Syria on Tuesday, which occurred they were trying to reach the Syrian town of Haffeh but were turned back by angry crowds who threw stones and metals rods at them.
“One of our observers was almost injured,” he said. “We thought he was injured, but in fact the bullet did not penetrate (him) but hit his boot.”
“There were many impacts in the car,” he added. “So it was deliberate.”
Three U.N. vehicles were fired upon. Ladsous said the shots appeared to come from a crowd of civilians.
Editing by Will Dunham