Herve Ladsous, the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, acknowledged on Tuesday that Syria was now effectively in a state of civil war.
The statement may seem self-evident to anyone watching the escalation of fighting between the Syrian government, which is using attack helicopters, tanks, and mortars against civilians and armed opposition fighters, which have themselves stepped up attacks against government targets.
But the declaration triggered a sharp rebuke from the Syrian government and prompted the U.N. leadership to say that Ladsous has no legal standing to judge the nature of the Syrian conflict. Ban Ki-moon's office issued a statement saying the "UN secretariat will not characterize the conflict in Syria."
"Talk of civil war in Syria is not consistent with reality," the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "What is happening in Syria is a war against terrorist groups plotting against the future of the Syrian people."
The determination has real implications, according to legal scholars, subjecting Syria to laws of war under Geneva Conventions.
It is up to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, to determine whether a country has crossed the threshold from a violent disturbance into a full fledged civil war, or internal armed conflict.
Under the laws of war, a government has a permit to kill combatants in the course of a conflict, but it is also subject to prosecution for committing war crimes, like bombarding residential neighborhoods.
So far, the Red Cross has not rendered a judgment. But in a recent statement, it said "the situation in many parts of Syria is very tense, with a daily toll of casualties, as fighting continues between government forces and armed opposition groups."
Richard Dicker, a war crimes expert at Human Rights Watch, said there is no system for petitioning the Red Cross to determine the nature of a conflict, saying the organization is "subject to no one." But he said a determination that Syria is in the midst of a civil war would broaden the menu of war crimes that the government, or the armed opposition, could be prosecuted for. Damascus, for instance, would be prohibited from attacking civilians not taking part in the conflict, conscripting children under the age of 15, or directing attacks against hospitals and religious sites.
"The bombardment of Homs would certainly be a war crime," he said.
Top U.N. officials have said that the fighting now bears many of the characteristics of a civil war.
"There are indications that the situation in Syria -- at least in certain areas -- amounts to an internal armed conflict," Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said last week. "This would have legal implications, triggering the possibility of commission of war crimes."
Ban Ki-moon also said last week that "the confrontations in certain areas have taken on the character of an internal conflict."
But Ladsous went even further. Asked Tuesday whether Syrian conflict could be characterized as a civil war, Ladsous answered: "Yes, I think we can say that."
"Clearly, what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control," Ladsous said in an interview with Reuters and AFP news agencies.
But it wasn't long before the U.N. had backtracked. In a press briefing today, Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said "it's clear it's not for us to determine or formally characterize the nature of the conflict in Syria."
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