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Defector: ‘The battle for Damascus is coming’

CNN) — Increasing violence in the Syrian capital is pointing toward a major fight ahead, a rebel spokesman told CNN Monday.
“The battle for Damascus is coming,” said Abdulhameed Zakaria, a Syrian army colonel and doctor who defected and joined the opposition Free Syrian Army in Istanbul.
Video from the capital on Monday showed regime tanks in some streets and clashes with members of the opposition.
Video from activists in the central Damascus neighborhood of Medan showed people running and screaming amid loud sounds. It was unclear whether the blasts were gunshots or mortar fire.
State-run TV showed a woman driving a car in Medan saying there was “nothing going on right now.”
Asked about reports that there was shelling in Medan, she responded, “No, nothing is happening, thank God.” Apparent gunfire could be heard in the background as she spoke.
With violence spreading throughout the country, the Red Cross announced that the conflict is a civil war throughout the country.
The declaration officially applies the Geneva Conventions to violence throughout the country.
International humanitarian law now applies “wherever hostilities take place,” the organization said Monday.
The announcement came just a few days after more than 200 people were massacred in the town of Tremseh, according to activists. It was the deadliest day of the conflict.
The government denies any such massacre, saying it conducted a military operation against “armed terrorist groups.”
At least 50 people were killed Monday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC).
The deaths include 14 in Hama, 12 in Homs, eight in Aleppo, six in Daraa, four in Damascus, three in Idlib, two in Deir Ezzor and one in the Damascus suburbs, the LCC said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross’ mandate “stems essentially from the Geneva Conventions of 1949,” the organization says on its website.
“Part of its legal mandate is to determine when international humanitarian law applies,” ICRC spokesman Sean Maguire told CNN. “We make a determination as to whether a conflict exists.”
The Red Cross does not use the general term “civil war,” and instead declares a “non-international armed conflict.”
In April, the organization declared such a conflict in Homs, Hama, and Idlib.
Now, hostilities have spread enough that the conflict exists throughout the country, Maguire said.
“In theory,” he said, the Red Cross announcement could affect prosecutions by the International Criminal Court in the future. If a prosecuting authority is established for Syria, it could point to the announcement that the Geneva Conventions applied, and to ways that they were violated. However, for the court to look at the situation in Syria, a referral from the U.N. Security Council would be required, Maguire noted.
Russia and China — which have deals with Syria — have used their veto power to block some of the toughest draft resolutions against the Syrian regime in the Security Council.
Britain is pushing for a tough new resolution in the U.N. Security Council under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. Chapter 7 resolutions are enforceable through sanctions or even military action.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Western diplomats of “blackmail” to try to force Russia to get on board with the new draft.
“Unfortunately, we have seen some elements of blackmail. We’re told if we don’t agree to pass the resolution (under) Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, they will not agree to extend the U.N. observers mandate,” Lavrov said at a press conference before meeting with Kofi Annan, envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League.
“I consider it a totally counterproductive and a dangerous approach, because it is unacceptable to use the observers as the bargaining chip.”
He slammed Western countries that are trying to change Russia’s stance.
“The track record of those who try to make us step aside from this position has a lot of deplorable instances of unilateral military actions, and the results are well remembered by everybody,” Lavrov said.
Russia has vowed to stop new arms sales to the country.
Numerous countries, including the United States, have criticized Russia, saying its actions in the Security Council have helped the Syrian regime continue a brutal crackdown on the opposition.
Many nations have expelled Syrian ambassadors. Morocco became the latest to do so Monday.
Syria responded by declaring Morocco’s ambassador persona non grata.
Throughout the conflict, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has consistently blamed violence on “armed terrorist groups,” and reported on its security forces “martyred” in attacks.
On state-run news agency SANA, Syria said authorities chased one such group in a Damascus suburb on Monday and clashed with others in Idlib and Deir Ezzor. In Aleppo, meanwhile, authorities “confronted gunmen,” inflicting “heavy losses,” SANA said.
State TV reported “heavy losses” among “terrorists who attacked border guards’ stations in Salqin in Idlib suburbs,” near the Turkish border.
CNN cannot confirm details of reported violence because Syria has restricted access to the country by international journalists.
Since the crisis began in March 2011, the United Nations estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed in the violence; opposition activists say more than 15,000 have died.

Published Date: Monday, July 16th, 2012 | 12:31 PM

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