GENEVA (Reuters) - Fighting has been so intense in parts of Syria that at times the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad 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 Homs earlier this year, and the northwestern province of Idlib more recently, have met the humanitarian agency’s three criteria for defining 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 Amr in Homs in February,” Kellenberger told Reuters, making clear that the criteria were not met in the entire country.
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 now to more “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 1 million Syrians.
Kellenberger appealed for more funds for the ICRC operation in Syria, now its 8th-largest worldwide with a budget of nearly 38 million Swiss francs ($41 million)for this year, matching Yemen.
The agency has expanded its work, 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 that ICRC officials would visit detainees at Aleppo central prison from May 14-23, only their second prison visit in Syria, as agreed with authorities during his last trip there in early April.
The ICRC’s first visit was to Damascus central prison in September. But the program quickly stalled amid disagreement over ICRC’s standard procedures, 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.”
Kellenberger said he remained very worried about conditions in Syria, where U.N. observers are monitoring a shaky ceasefire between government forces and rebels declared on April 12.
“I really hope that the U.N. observers will deploy rapidly, not only in Damascus, rapidly in different places,” he said.
Referring to the six-point peace plan of mediator Kofi Annan, who was due to brief the U.N. Security Council later in the day from Geneva, he said: “I still hope it will not fail.”
($1 = 0.9207 Swiss francs)
Editing by Alistair Lyon