Photo by Vedat Xhymshiti/AFP/GettyImages
UPDATE: Fighting in the Syrian capital of Damascus continued for a second day Monday, one day after the Red Cross officially classified the ongoing conflict in the country as a civil war.
While the Syrian violence has been going on for 16 months and counting, the capital had mostly been spared until recent days. Activists and residents, however, are now reporting the use of mortar and gun fire around the city. According to the New York Times, the conflict is concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods, including one in which rebel fighters are thought to be hiding out in the homes of Sunni Muslim residents.
Meanwhile, Russia said on Monday that they'll refuse to vote to extend U.N. monitoring operations in Syria unless the West stops employing what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called "elements of blackmail," Reuters reports. Russia, a long-time ally of Syria, has generally refused to support any international efforts to end the conflict that involve removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
The Guardian reports that U.N. envoy Kofi Annan will meet with Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin later Monday and Tuesday to discuss Syria.
Sunday, July 15: The International Committee of the Red Cross now officially considers the conflict in Syria to be a civil war. Although it might seem like a no-duh declaration, officially labeling the conflict a civil war could be the first step in planning any future prosecutions for war crimes, points out Reuters. The designation means international humanitarian law—known as the rules of war—applies throughout Syria, giving each side of the conflict guidelines on what kind of force they can use. Although each side can use appropriate force to reach its goals, attacks on civilians or any abuse of prisoners can amount to war crimes, details the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi vehemently denied U.N. claims that the government had used heavy weapons during an operation in the village of Tremseh. Although U.N. observers are still investigating the matter, the monitoring mission released a statement saying the Tremseh attack "appeared targeted at specific groups and houses, mainly of army defectors and activists," reports the Guardian. Estimated death tolls in Tremseh range from around 100 to 152, notes the AP. Saner van Hoorn, a Dutch journalist on the scene, wrote on Twitter that he saw evidence of shelling at Tremseh but “I did not see clear signs of a massacre.”
Back in the capital of Damascus, opposition fighters and government forces battled in what was “some of the most intensive daytime fighting yet inside the city limits,” reports Reuters. Although these types of clashes have become relatively common at night, daytime fighting appears to be the latest sign of how the conflict is intensifying.
Saturday, July 14: U.N. Observers in Syria traveled to the village of Tremseh, in central Hama province, on Saturday to gather facts about an alleged massacre that, according to opposition activists, killed some 220 people. In a press statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited “credible reports” that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad “deliberately murdered innocent civilians.” The Syrian government insists it was part of a military operation that killed lots of terrorists. Yet U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned what a U.N. mission has described as “indiscriminate” bombing of the village, reports Reuters. Although U.N. observers are not carrying out normal duties due to safety concerns, they can still go on short-term missions.
The BBC emphasizes lingering doubts over what actually took place in Tremseh, noting that unlike the Houla massacre of two months ago, the opposition has not released videos that clearly depict civilian deaths and have not detailed the names of those killed. The videos that have been released appear “consistent with the government line that many rebel fighters were killed,” writes the BBC.The New York Times also emphasizes doubts, saying it's likely the deaths were the result of "an uneven clash between the heavily armed Syrian military and local fighters bearing light weapons." So far, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has only been able to confirm about 103 deaths, about 90 percent of whom were young men.
Yet the delay in confirming the deaths might be because so many people were killed that it is difficult to get a handle of the situation. An activist tells Reuters that of 60 bodies at a mosque only 20 have been identified and insisted there are still “more bodies in the fields, bodies in the rivers and in houses.”
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan harshly criticized Assad’s regime Saturday, reports the Associated Press. “Sooner or later, these tyrants with blood on their hands will go and the people of Syria will in the end make them pay,” he said.
The New York Times’ C.J. Chivers sits in on a meeting between Syrian rebel commanders in a Turkish city near the border, and points out that there was little talk of massacres or diplomacy. For now, the commanders are mostly focused on the logistics of fighting Assad’s regime, and the key question of how to go about obtaining money and weapons.
Friday, July 3: According to Syrian opposition activists, more than 200 were killed in a Thursday massacre of a farming village by government forces. If true, then Thursday was one of the bloodiest days in the country's year-plus unrest.
The Associated Press reports that there are few clear details concerning the apparent massacre in Tremseh, including motive. It's also unclear how many of the dead are civilians, and how many are armed rebel fighters. As is routine, the Syrian government are claiming that "terrorist" groups (the government uses that word to refer to armed opposition groups) initiated the massacre.
U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has responded to the reports of violence, saying he is "shocked and appalled," the BBC notes. U.N. attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis have so far been ineffective, with a team of 300 U.N. observers barred from moving freely or visiting most past massacre sites as increasing violence brings the country close to a full-blown civil war.
Estimates of the total death toll from the Syrian unrest that began in March of 2011 are at 16,000, but the country's restrictions on media and humanitarian access make it nearly impossible to confirm.