Characterization should be leveraged against Assad's enablers.
Those reading accounts of atrocities in Syria, or viewing gruesome footage of massacres in Damascus and elsewhere, probably didn't need to be convinced that the country's chaos had devolved into a civil war.
But the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose authoritative voice matters in characterizing conflicts, officially came to that conclusion last weekend. Its designation is important in many ways, especially if it helps hasten the end of Syrian President Bashar Assad's brutal dictatorship.
Officially, the ICRC is calling the fighting a "non-international armed conflict." This kicks in Geneva Convention rules of war, which will have an effect on both sides of the fight. Pro-Assad forces can legitimately attack those designated as rebel fighters, but the rules also trigger specific humanitarian laws designed to protect civilians.
These rules may increase the likelihood of war crimes charges being issued by the International Criminal Court. During last year's war in Libya, the court charged former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and two senior aides, which further delegitimized the repressive regime and further legitimized the internal and international opposition. How much the ICRC designation will help those brutalized in Syria remains to be seen.
"I can't say the conflicts become shorter or less brutal," said Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has tracked the responses in other countries. "The difference it makes is international humanitarian actors now have added clout for trying to get access to civilians. Denying medical care can be considered a war crime. Inhumane treatment against a person is now a crime against international humanitarian law. So it gives more weight to those concerned about violations taking place."
One risk is that the ICRC's decision will motivate Assad to try to kill his way to victory, as well as to restrict access to humanitarian groups and journalists who may bear witness.
Based on the bloodshed, this appears to be Assad's current strategy. And he's getting help from two key enablers: Russia and China, which have vetoed previous United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have imposed stricter sanctions on the Syrian regime.
The ICRC designation and the accompanying possibility of Assad's being charged with war crimes should shame Russian and Chinese leaders to abandon their defense of the indefensible. There is already ample evidence from U.N. observers, human rights organizations, journalists and Syrian civilians that Assad-led forces have wantonly killed defenseless citizens and tortured some who have been held captive.
Kofi Annan, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy for Syria, is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao. With an impending vote on yet another Security Council resolution, the two leaders have another opportunity to close ranks with the international community to end the savage Assad regime -- and the Syrian civil war.
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