By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The Red Cross now views fighting in Syria as an internal armed conflict - a civil war in layman's terms - crossing a threshold experts say can help lay the ground for future prosecutions for war crimes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions setting down the rules of war, and as such is considered a reference in qualifying when violence has evolved into an armed conflict.
The independent humanitarian agency had previously classed the violence in Syria as localized civil wars between government forces and armed opposition groups in three flashpoints - Homs, Hama and Idlib.
But hostilities have spread to other areas, leading the Swiss-based agency to conclude the fighting meets its threshold for an internal armed conflict and to inform the warring parties of its analysis and their obligations under law.
"There is a non-international armed conflict in Syria. Not every place is affected, but it is not only limited to those three areas, it has spread to several other areas," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan told Reuters in response to a query.
"That does not mean that all areas throughout the country are affected by hostilities," he said.
The qualification means that people who order or commit attacks on civilians including murder, torture and rape, or use disproportionate force against civilian areas, can be charged with war crimes in violation of international humanitarian law.
For most of the 17-month-old conflict, the ICRC has been the only international agency to deploy aid workers in Syria who deliver food, medical and other assistance across frontlines.
All fighters caught up in an internal armed conflict are obliged to respect international humanitarian law, also known as the law of armed conflict, according to the ICRC. This includes specific sections of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
"What matters is that international humanitarian law applies wherever hostilities between government forces and opposition groups are taking place across the country (Syria)," Hassan said. "This includes, but is not necessarily limited to Homs, Idlib and Hama."
Andrew Clapham, director of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, said the ICRC assessment of the conflict, which he shared, was important.
"It means it is more likely that indiscriminate attacks causing excessive civilian loss, injury or damage would be a war crime and could be prosecuted as such," Clapham told Reuters.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in a speech on June 26 that his country was in a state of war.
RULES OF WAR
The rules impose limits on how fighting may be conducted, so as to protect civilians and ex-combatants not taking part in the hostilities.
They require the humane treatment of all people in enemy hands and the duty to care for the wounded and sick. It also means parties to the internal conflict are entitled to attack military targets, but not civilians or civilian property.
U.N. observers entered the central Syrian village of Tremseh on Saturday, two days after activists said about 220 people had been killed there by helicopter gunships and militiamen, prompting international outrage.
Amnesty International said on Friday some rebel fighters were committing rights abuses although they paled in comparison to the government's campaign of violence.
The ICRC uses the term "non-international armed conflict" as it reflects the wording in common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applying to situations such as Syria.
"The term 'civil war', which is used by some as a synonym for internal armed conflict or non-international armed conflict, has no legal meaning as such," Hassan said.
The ICRC's three criteria of a non-international armed conflict are the intensity and duration of fighting, and the level of organization of rebels fighting government forces.
In early May, the agency said Syrian rebels represented an "organized" opposition force and there were localized conflicts in Homs and Idlib, later adding Hama to its list.
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.
In areas of Syria which are outside of the hostilities but also hit by violence linked to civilian demonstrations, international human rights law - which bans extrajudicial executions, torture and arbitrary arrests - continues to apply, according to the agency.
"In particular, measures taken against such demonstrations with the purpose of restoring order must respect international law and standards governing the use of force in law enforcement operations," Hassan said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Sophie Hares)