Syria Airstrikes Under International Law

While there are political and moral reasons for the recent United States strikes in Syria, the international legal basis for these strikes is lacking.

This airstrike appears inconsistent with international law. The U.N. Security Council did not authorize the use of force in Syria. Yesterday, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations indicated a possible future use of force absent U.N. approval by stating “when the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we [United States] are compelled to take our own action.” This airstrike cannot be justified under self-defense or even collective self-defense for Syria’s neighbors since the chemical attack was an internal matter to Syria.

The United States will have to defend the intervention is morally legitimate. This moral legitimacy will be analyzed based on the nine factors the United States and NATO allies used to justify the air campaign in Kosovo. These factors are:

  1. the offending state was engaged in widespread and serious violations of international law;
  2. the offending state’s forces used excessive and indiscriminate force;
  3. the offending state failed to comply with multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions and other international legal instruments;
  4. the offending state refused to negotiate to resolve the issue peacefully;
  5. there were prospects of a wider conflict and refugee flows threatened the stability of the region;
  6. there was a buildup of government forces in a way that foreshadowed a pending attack;
  7. observers and humanitarian workers in the offending state face threats;
  8. the intervention involved a unity of action by a variety of states; and
  9. force must be a last resort, after other options have been exhausted.

Many of the factors that were used to justify the Kosovo campaign are not present in the recent strike against the Shayrat Airfield in Syria.

One of the strongest factors for the strike against Syria is President Assad’s repeated use violence against his own people. The first factor is support by Assad using chemical weapons against his people, a serious violation of international law. The second factor is supported by Assad repeatedly targeting civilian objects as well as military targets including hospitals. Although Assad has failed to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions, there has not been a finding by U.N. Security Council that the situation in Syria poses a threat to regional security, which provides less support to the third factor than was present in Kosovo. The fourth factor is undermined by the Syrian government’s negotiation of ceasefires with the international community, whereas in Kosovo there was no such negotiation. The fifth factor is better supported by the Syrian situation because of the mass refugee flow from Syria since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. On the other hand, the sixth factor is not supported because in Syria there has not been a buildup of military forces for a large offensive as there was in Kosovo. The seventh factor could be supported in Syria by Assad’s past targeting of humanitarian workers, including those working in hospitals. The eighth factor is not supported in the Syrian airstrike because the United States took unilateral action whereas in Kosovo there were 19 states that intervened. The ninth factor could go either way since it could be argued that not all courses of action had been exhausted, but it could also be argued that there have been multiple peace negotiations and Assad continues to use chemical weapons against his own people.

While not all of the factors that were present in Kosovo are present in the Syrian airstrike. The biggest factor going for justification is the repeated use of chemical weapons. The largest factor going against justification is that this was a unilateral airstrike by the United States and not as part of a larger coalition. This use of force will be debated by the U.N. Security Council, which will likely not come to a determination because of the clash between the United States and Russia.

Some nations, particularly Russia, have condemned that attacks. The Kremlin released a statement stating that the airstrike was an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.” At the same time the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations stated that the United States is “prepared to do more” which will undermine future United States and Russian relations and will challenge a resolution to ongoing conflict in Syria.



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