GENEVA (Reuters) - Fighting has been so intense in parts of Syria that at times it has qualified as a localized civil war, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday.
Jakob Kellenberger said that conflict in Homs and the province of Idlib this year met the agency’s three criteria of a non-international armed conflict - intensity, duration and the level of organization of rebels fighting government forces.
“It can be a situation of internal armed conflict in certain areas: an example was the fighting in Baba Amro in Homs in February,” Kellenberger told Reuters, making clear the criteria were not met in the entire country.
Andrew Clapham, director of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, said the qualification could imply future prosecutions for war crimes.
“It is now clear that certain acts committed by either side in those places can qualify as war crimes,” he told Reuters.
“It also means that the parties will be violating international humanitarian law if they attack civilians or civilian objects.”
U.N. experts have compiled a list of Syrian figures suspected of crimes against humanity, but opposition from Russia and China means they are unlikely to appear in the dock at the international war crimes court soon.
The ICRC’s lawyers and its aid workers in Syria have studied the question of civil war for much of the 14-month-old uprising, in which at least 9,000 people have been killed.
Only lately did they determine that Syrian rebels represent an “organized” opposition force. Kellenberger also noted that the nature of violence has shifted more to “guerrilla attacks”.
In contrast, the ICRC was quick to describe last year’s conflict in Libya as a civil war, once rebels had set up a headquarters and a command and control structure.
The ICRC assessment means that international humanitarian law, embodied in the Geneva Conventions laying down the rules of war, is applicable to both sides in some parts of Syria.
It requires the humane treatment of all people in enemy hands and the duty to care for the wounded and sick. But it also means that the parties to the internal conflict are entitled to attack military targets, under international humanitarian law.
The ICRC has distributed supplies in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deraa, Aleppo and rural Damascus in recent months. The United Nations has been largely shut out of conflict-related relief, but is trying to win Syrian approval for a major aid program to help a million Syrians.
Kellenberger appealed for more funds for the ICRC operation in Syria, now its eighth-largest worldwide with a budget of some 38 million Swiss francs ($41 million) this year, matching Yemen.
The agency has expanded its work, now providing monthly food parcels for about 100,000 “particularly vulnerable” Syrians.
“The number of people who have very basic needs in terms of food and non-food items has increased very much. It is not only consequences of fighting, it partly has to do with isolation of country through sanctions,” Kellenberger told a news briefing.
The ICRC is trying to improve living conditions and restore public services including clean water for 1.5 million people.
“One of our biggest problems is to ensure wounded and sick have access to medical care without being afraid of being ill-treated. One of our biggest concerns is medical staff not being respected, be it the Syrian Arab Red Crescent or doctors doing surgery in private residences,” he said.
Activists say at least 15,000 people have been arrested by security forces and many families have no idea where they are.
Kellenberger said ICRC officials would visit detainees in Aleppo central prison from May 14-23. It will be only their second prison visit in Syria.
The ICRC’s first visit was to Damascus central prison in September. The program quickly stalled amid disagreement over ICRC’s standard requirements, which include the right to interview prisoners in private and make follow-up visits.
“We will try and see how it works in Aleppo, we are fighting step-by-step to have access to detention centers. This will be a further step, I think an important step,” Kellenberger said.
“If it works we will gradually get a better view.”
Editing by Andrew Roche