Syria bombings: A legitimate decision, yet illegal?

Author and translator: Candice Labidi

On Saturday 14th April, United States, France and United Kingdom launched their missiles on Syria. They targeted the production and storage site of chemical weapons. This raid was a shock wave in the International Community: Was-it legal? Was it legitimate? What is the position of the UN?

Why did they intervene?

To understand why some States intervene, we need to go back in 2011. At that time, a Civil War broke out in the country and joined the Arab Spring Movement. Syrian people want more democracy therefore the end of Bachar Al Assad’s authoritarian regime. Pro-Assad, Rebels, Kurds and Islamist fight each other.  Islamism movement, like Daesh, found fertile ground to root themselves in power. International community decided to step in: France, USA and United Kingdom are fighting against Daesh and are supporting the Rebels. Concerning Turkey, it is part of the coalition but is fighting Kurds as well. Although, Russia and Iran are against Daesh, they are supporting Bachar Al Assad.


UN can seem powerless when it comes to this war that last for seven years, however it is not without trying to change the situation. For instance, the Security Council in February 2018, passed unanimously an one month ceasefire. Unfortunately, it was one of the only resolution the Council could have passed. Indeed, since the beginning of the conflict, Russia and China veto every single resolution that could adversely affect Bachar Al Assad. In total, Russia has used its veto 12 times since 2011. UN has no other choice than to contemplate, helpless, the fall of Aleppo and the Eastern Ghouta. “Aleppo is now a synonym for hell (…)We have collectively failed the people of Syria (…) My deepest regret is the pursue of the Syrian’s nightmare” declared the former UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-Moon. Since the beginning of the conflict, there have been 470 000 deaths in Syria.

On 7th April 2018, more than 80 rebels were killed in a chemical attack in Douma. Some countries, like USA, France and United Kingdom, suspect Bachar Al Assad’s government to be responsible. Yet, the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1933 Chemical Weapons Convention forbid the use, storage or production of such kind of weapons. Syria joined this agreement in 2013. The states mentioned above decided to intervene. France launched 12 of the 100 naval missile it owns for the first time. Storage and production sites in Damas and Homs were targeted.


Legitimacy vs Legality?

 After the operation, many questions were asked: Was it legal? Does legitimacy prevail over legality?

According to the United Nations Charter, fundamental treaty, the Security Council can intervene in a conflict if it judges it is necessary to maintain peace and international security. Thus, a State can not, in any case, intervene in another country.

The States who intervened use legitimacy as a justification: Syria does not respect the UN charter and the diplomatic deadlock caused by Russia encourage them to act. Opposition denounced an illegal action done without the UN’s permission. 2118 resolution that forbids chemical weapons allows, of course, an action of the Security Council but not from the Member States.

However, when Russia vetoes 12 times and stop any decision to be taken for the last seven years, how the UN can act?

Emmanuel Macron claims the “full international legitimacy” to answer to the use of these weapons. Edouard Phillipe, French Prime Minister, even adds “France wants an efficient multilateralism. Yet, the obstructionist attitude of one State did not permit a result to this collective step. Russia vetoes 12 times on the Syrian file including 6 only sur the chemical subject.” Donald Trump and Theresa May both highlighted that the diplomatic solution failed, and it was legitimate to lead this operation. As a result, most of the chemical weapons has been destroyed.

A decision that may seems legitimate, yet illegal.

What consequences for the International Community?

For the Syrian government, it is a “barbaric and brutal aggression”. Russia considers this act as “an aggression towards a Sovereign State which is at the forefront of the fight against terrorism”. Russia asked the Security Council to punish the 3 States that intervene. It was supported by China and Bolivia but rejected by the Council. If any other attack happen, France and USA are ready to step in again even if Donald Trump would prefer the American troops to back the soonest.

This operation could lead to important change in the international law: Can countries, now, intervene in another country? In the future, will a division inside the Security Council will justify unilateralism? Should we intervene in other regions that are politically instable or not?

For now, although the operation was a military success, it stays an illegal decision that create many questions.



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