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2016 | Classifying the Conflict in Syria, by T.D. Gill

In this article, the author provides a classification of the various conflicts taking place within the borders of the Syrian Arab Republic and assesses how they are connected to each other and to related, but separate conflicts underway in neighbouring countries. It is concluded that there are, at the time of writing, at least two, arguably three distinct armed conflicts underway, all of which should be classified as being non-international in character.  

To classify the conflict, the author starts with a factual outline of the main actors involved in the conflict. The article subsequently sets out the two accepted types of armed conflict under international humanitarian law (IHL): an international armed conflict (IAC) and a non-international armed conflict (NIAC). It is explained that in situations where an organized armed group operates across international borders, the conflict will either be international or non-international in character. This author argues that such conflicts remain non-international unless certain conditions, which are dealt with in the article, are met.

The article discusses the two main opposing views concerning the role of governmental consent to foreign military intervention by a foreign State in classification of an armed conflict and how this affects the way the conflicts in Syria are characterized. One point of view is that any State intervention on another State’s territory in the absence of that State’s consent will trigger an IAC. The intervention is regarded as necessarily constituting an intervention against that State because of its non-consensual character. The other main view, to which the author adheres, is that an intervention directed exclusively against an organized armed group, which does not target the territorial State’s organs or “national assets” is not directed against the State, but rather against the armed group and therefore remains, in principle, a NIAC. It is argued that the classification of the conflict is dependent on the factual situation, so that governmental consent (or lack thereof) is not in itself determinative for the classification of an armed conflict. Factors which could be relevant to classify the armed conflict are listed on page 373 of the present article.

The article concludes by explaining why the classification of the conflict matters in terms of the applicable IHL regime. It highlights some of the most important consequences of classifying the various conflicts non-international or international in character.