BEIRUT – Syria on Sunday denied U.N. claims that government forces used heavy weapons during a military operation that left scores dead and brought immediate international condemnation, while the International Committee of the Red Cross said it now considers the conflict in the country a civil war.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the violence Thursday was not a massacre — as activists and many foreign leaders have asserted — but a military operation targeting armed fighters who had taken control of the village of Tremseh.
"What happened wasn't an attack on civilians," Makdissi told reporters in Damascus. He said 37 gunmen and two civilians were killed — a far lower death toll than the one put forward by anti-regime activists, some of whom estimate that more than 100 people were killed.
"What has been said about the use of heavy weapons is baseless," Makdissi added.
But the United Nations has already implicated Assad's forces in the assault. The head of the U.N. observer mission said Friday that monitors stationed near Tremseh saw the army using heavy weaponry and attack helicopters.
Although there has been a string of horrific attacks in Syria over the course of the uprising, the violence appears to be escalating. On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it now deems the conflict in Syria a civil war, meaning international humanitarian law applies throughout the country.
The Geneva-based group's assessment is an important reference that helps parties in a conflict determine how much and what type of force they can or cannot use.
ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said Sunday that humanitarian law now applies wherever hostilities are taking place in Syria, where fighting has spread beyond the hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama. International humanitarian law grants parties to a conflict the right to use appropriate force to achieve their aims. But attacks on civilians and abuse or killing of detainees can constitute war crimes.
On Saturday, U.N. observers investigating the killings in Tremseh found pools of blood in homes and spent bullets, mortars and artillery shells, adding details to the emerging picture of what anti-regime activists have called one of the deadliest events of Syria's uprising. The observers were expected to return to the village Sunday.
Dozens of people have already been buried in a mass grave, and activists are still struggling to determine the total number of people killed in what they say was a bombardment by government tanks and helicopters on Thursday.
Some of the emerging details suggested that, rather than the outright shelling of civilians that the opposition has depicted, the violence in Tremseh may have been a lopsided fight between the army pursuing the opposition and activists and locals trying to defend the village. Nearly all of the dead are men, including dozens of armed rebels. The U.N. observers said the assault appeared to target specific homes of army defectors or opposition figures.
Running tolls ranged from around 100 to 152, including dozens of bodies buried in neighboring villages or burned beyond recognition. The activists expected the number to rise since hundreds of residents remain unaccounted for, and locals believe bodies remained in nearby fields or were dumped into the Orontes River.
Independent verification of the events is nearly impossible in Syria, one of the Middle East's strictest police states, which bars most media from working independently in the country. The observers are in the country as part of a faltering peace plan by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, who has been trying for months to negotiate a solution to Syria's crisis.
The Tremseh violence was the latest in a string of bloody attacks in the now 16-month-old uprising against Assad, in which activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed.
On Saturday, an 11-vehicle team of U.N. observers entered Tremseh, home to between 6,000-10,000 residents and one of a string of small farming villages along the Orontes River northwest of the city of Hama.
Based on its investigation, the team said in a statement that "an attack" took place on July 12. It said the violence seemed to target the homes of army defectors and activists, some of which were burned or damaged and had pooled or splattered blood and bullet casings inside.
Although much of the international community has turned on Assad, Damascus still has some key allies — including Russia and Iran. The Kremlin announced Sunday that Annan will meet President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
Also Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Tehran is ready to invite Syrian opposition groups and government envoys for talks, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.
Any proposal from Iran is likely to be rebuffed by rebel groups, which have rejected negotiations with Assad's government and have criticized Tehran for standing by its allies in Damascus. But the offer suggested Iran is seeking a more active role in mediation efforts following a visit last week to Tehran Annan, who is seeking to keep alive his flagging peace efforts.