Comment: Syria’s Civil War and Obligations of International Law

News & Insights
May 3, 2013

Eric Alterman of the Center for American Progress has briefly and cogently summarized pertinent facts regarding the Syria crisis as well as proposals of various US politicians. He has also set out three steps that he and colleagues recommend be taken by the US at once. These are:

  1. Demand an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on the Assad regime’s likely chemical-weapons use.
  2. Engage NATO and regional partners in planning the U.S. response.
  3. Request that NATO and other allies begin planning for a major multinational refugee relief mission in Jordan.

At least one remarkable feature of these three steps is that they would all be consistent with applicable international law.

What international law regimes are applicable to the range of actions the governments of Syria and its opponents have proposed?  The situation clearly constitutes a threat to international peace and security, thus authorizing action under Chapter Seven of the Charter by the United Nations Security Council, but most action has been blocked by China and Russia apart from an arms embargo, publicly and grossly violated by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, Iran and other states. Certainly a right of self-defense under the United Nations Charter might well be applicable, at least in the case of neighboring states. At least some of these neighboring states are clearly prepared to seek the assistance of major powers to assist them to exercise their rights of self-defense. The government of Syria has also called upon neighboring and foreign states to assist it to defeat what it claims is terrorist activity aided by foreign states seeking the Government’s overthrow in violation of the Charter.

International humanitarian law is certainly being violated by various parties to the internal conflict, and not only by the Government of Syria. These same parties are also likely in violation of international human rights obligations under international conventions.  Some argue there is international law requiring or permitting armed intervention by other states for the purpose of ending the enormous suffering of the Syrian people.  Finally, is international law simply irrelevant to this conflict?

We suggest that attention to the applicable international law would go a long way toward structuring a more effective and sustainable response than any advocated by the politicians whose views are reported by Alterman or by most of the permanent members of the UN Security Council thus far.