The Conflict in Syria
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is defined as the body of rules or principles in international law which regulate the treatment of civilians, combatants and the wounded in armed conflict. The aim of IHL is to minimize the losses, pain and suffering caused in the course of war. There are a number of existing international statutes based on IHL, the cornerstone of which are, the Geneva Conventions and their Addition Protocols.
The distinction in IHL between international armed conflict(IAC) and non-international armed conflict(NIAC), as well as the controversies associated with this distinction, has been brought to the attention of the international community through the ongoing conflict in Syria. Citing mounting civilian casualties, immense destruction to infrastructure and a rapid deterioration of conditions on the ground, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) designated the conflict in Syria as having reached the threshold of NIAC, or, in more colloquial terms, as having reached the point of civil war. The implications of such a designation are that the rules of IHL, which prohibit, amongst other things, the murder, torture and rape of civilians and the use of disproportionate force in civilian areas, apply. This means that participants in the conflict on either side may be prosecuted for war crimes under IHL.
Despite the fact that the Syrian government has rejected the pronouncements made by the ICRC, and despite the fact that the opinion of the ICRC is not legally binding, the description of the conflict in Syria as a form of NIAC has serious implications for the legal framework to be applied and the level of protection afforded to innocent civilians. This essay aims to discuss the legal principles relating to the typology of conflict under IHL. An application of the established criteria will demonstrate that the argument for the existence of NIAC in Syria is a strong one. This paper will also discuss whether the protection that is available to Syrian civilians is adequate in light of IHLand whether persons can effectively be held criminally liable for crimes perpetrated during the subsistence of the conflict in Syria.