Lionel Beehner: Syria Is Now a ‘Civil War.’ Does That Matter?
Truman Fellow Lionel Beehner in the Huffington Post:
After a year and a half of escalating violence and thousands killed, the International Red Cross has finally gotten around to labeling Syria a “civil war.” The reaction from most experts is: Well, duh. This is the foreign policy equivalent of Anderson Cooper coming out of the closet: Tell us something we didn’t already know.
But does this distinction, from either a legal or policy perspective, really matter? From a legal perspective, the actors in the conflict are now subject to what’s called “international humanitarian law,” which means that the Geneva Conventions — that is, the laws that regulate actors’ conduct of jus in bello — apply (for a nice roundup of the legal implications, see Bobby Chesney’s blog post). It doesn’t necessarily mean that prisoners will get comfier digs, civilians will no longer be unlawfully targeted, or that Assad will be prosecuted as a war criminal in The Hague. But it does provide greater legal ammo to human rights defenders who want him charged pronto. That is because the laws of war are different from, say, the laws of armed protests (recall that France called its decades-long conflict in Algeria a “police operation” to avoid outside criticism of its human rights abuses). Even so, this semantic distinction is more of a matter for folks in fancy suits in Western capitals to debate. On the ground, it’s not like a Hunger Games-style anthem goes off and the rules of engagement are irrevocably changed.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Truman National Security Project or Educational Institute.