In September 2014, President Barack Obama ordered air strikes to be carried out against Syria. The goal of the air strikes was to weaken the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The news article, “Islamic State Crisis: What force does international law allow?” by Marc Weller discusses the international legal ramifications of the air strikes that the United States launched against Syria. Before launching the strikes, President Obama did not seek the approval of the United Nations Security Council or the US Congress. The congressional approval is another complicated topic in its own right; however, this article is concerned with the international law behind the attack.
The situation that is currently unfolding in Syria and the Middle East is a complicated matter. In order to understand the situation, it is easiest to start with a basic hypothetical situation to create a simple picture. The variable that are currently active in the Middle East will then be introduced to portray a better picture of what is occurring in Syria.
Consider first the scenario where the US gains intelligence that IS has several major bases in Syria. The US, believing that ISIS poses a significant threat, decides to attack ISIS in Syria. There is no known imminent threat on the United States from ISIS, but there is a potential for a future threat. This type of attack would be a blatant violation of international law and the United Nations Charter. Article 51 of the Charter states that states may only use force for self-defense if an armed attack occurs or if the attack is approved by the UN Security Council. The attack in this situation is a violation of the national sovereignty of Syria. It is important to note due to the crimes of ISIS, such an attack may still be seen as legitimate, even if it is not legal.
The situation is made further complicated by the fact that ISIS is a non-state actor. The United Nations, in wake of the September 11 attacks, have recognized that non-state actors are capable of armed attacks, in the sense of Article 51. Thus, if non-state actors have shown the capability to launch armed attacks, they are also viable targets from a state. ISIS is such a non-state actor currently imposing themselves upon the lands in Syria that border Iraq and parts of Jordan. It is the job of the Syrian government to resolve such matters internally. Unfortunately, it would appear that Syria is unable to handle the situation. Unchecked, ISIS has threatened the border between Syria and Iraq. Iraq, under imminent threat of attack, now has full legal justification under international law to attack ISIS.
At this point, Iraq decided to call on the United States for help in protecting its territory from ISIS. It can then be argued that the US is able to attack Syria because it is assisting in the collective self-defense of Iraq, to use the words from Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Iraq had written a letter expressly asking for the aid of the United States in protecting its borders. As such, it can be said that the United States was able to launch the attacks in Syria. Additionally, the US invoked its own right of self-defense when the Khorasan group was brought up. Khorasan is a group that is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and is also based in Syria. The US claims that Khorasan does present an imminent threat, unlike ISIS, and was also targeted during the air strikes.
Another argument can be made that the US strikes were legal due to the crimes against humanity that were committed by ISIS on Syrian soil. Syria has an obligation to protect its people from such crimes committed on its own territory. However, as mentioned previously, Syria has been unable to resolve the situation on its own. As a result, it is possible that international intervention can be taken to stop said crimes against humanity. While there have been other cases of forcible humanitarian action, they have all had the legal cover of a United Nations mandate, which this attack does not.