US Congressional Approval Or Sole Authority Of President Does Not Legitimize Military Action In Syria

US Congressional Approval Or Sole Authority Of President To Strike Does Not Legitimize Possible Military Action In Syria Under International Law

The reaction against the Assad regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons against its civilians through possible military intervention cannot be justified under international law. International law prohibits military intervention under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter with only two exceptions: use of force upon the authorization of Security Council under Chapter VII and self defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Self-defence should not apply in the Syrian case because the use of chemical weapons within Syria was not an armed attack on the United States. The UN Security Council’s authorization of international action requires the support of nine member nations of the 15-member panel, including the approval of five permanent members enjoying veto power. It is decisive that sanctions of the Security Council for possible military intervention against Syria should not be secured due to repeated resistance by Russia and China.

Under this scenario, the Obama administration’s decision to launch an attack subject to the authorization of US Congress and his sole authority to strike, which he enjoyed under the US Constitution, did not legitimize military intervention against Syria under international law. Military action to “prevent or deter the use or proliferation” of chemical or biological weapons “within, to or from Syria” and to “protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons” still requires confirmation from UN Security Council.

So far the international community has not endorsed any unauthorized military intervention on arms control or on humanitarian grounds. This can be discerned from the fact that although NATO’s military action in Kosovo in 1998-1999 (without the support of the Security Council) was decisive for ending the military conflict and stopping mass killings and other human rights violations, NATO’s action remained controversial, and there still appears to be little evidence of states having accepted the right of humanitarian intervention. Since Kosovo, there has not been any evidence of consistent state practice regarding unilateral humanitarian action.

Pakistan also believes that any military action to address the Syrian crisis could have serious consequences and could plunge this already volatile region into deeper conflict, as once stated by the spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a press briefing, the spokesperson expressed the non-military stance of Pakistan towards the Syrian crises. According to him,

“We believe that the approach to address the situation in Syria must be guided by the time honored principles of interstate relations particularly those enshrined in the UN Charter like respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non interference in the internal affairs, and resolution of disputes through peaceful means. Accordingly, Pakistan remains opposed to the use of force, urges maximum restraint by all sides, underscores the need for dialogue among the Syrians and emphasizes optimal utilization of United Nations in search for a peaceful solution.”

Endorsing Pakistan’s position towards Syria, measures short of military action as provided under the UN system would be a viable option to be adhered to. Chapter VII Article 41 of the UN Charter authorizes the Security Council to take enforcement measures with the approval of 9 out of 15 members with no vetoes by permanent members against the aggressive state.

The range of coercive measures include comprehensive economic and trade sanctions, like ban on financial transactions, refusal to finance or reschedule debt payments, vote against loan, grants, funding, subsidies, ban on import and export of commodities, boycotts, embargoes, suspension or cancellation of joint projects and trade agreements, further targeted measures such as arms embargoes, travel bans, financial restrictions such as the freezing of assets and blocking of financial transactions of political elites whose behavior triggered sanctions in the first place, etc.

UN members are legally obliged to enforce mandatory measures, having pledged in Chapter I, Article 2.5 of the UN Charter to “refrain from giving assistance to any state against which the United Nations is taking preventive or enforcement action.”

Such comprehensive sanctions would put the Syrian economy as a whole under siege, causing major trade, industrial and fiscal destabilization that would be conducive in coercing the Assad regime to change its behaviour.

Besides, the US should be taking the lead on cutting off military deals with Russian state arms exporters purported to be the largest providers of weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime. It was revealed in mid-June 2016 that Rosoboronexport and the US Department of Defense signed a new contract for the delivery Mi-17 helicopters for Afghanistan worth $554 million. Rosonboronexport, as of July 2013, recorded $34 billion in orders for 66 countries. Such a move by the US against a Russian arms exporter would influence other states to follow suit that would jeopardize the monopoly of Russia in international arms trade.

Apart from economic/military sanctions, diplomatic channels should be availed to deal with the Syrian crisis. All stakeholders including Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran should build consensus to adopt and implement a clear strategy on how to handle this crisis.

Syria should no longer be the battle-zone for a standoff between the United States, Israel and Gulf states against Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Any military move short of the UN Security Council’s approval would set a wrong precedent for other nations to violate international law norms on the pretext of humanitarian cause. That is the reason why after mistakes in Iraq and NATO’s use of excessive force against Libya, international powers like Russia, China and Great Britain have been conscious to make a military move against Syria. Peace in Syria should be restored through peaceful means. This is the best, most viable option which should be availed by the international community to restore normalcy in Syria, a long awaited desire of the Syrian people who are suffering the most from the conflict between the Assad regime and the belligerents for the last few years of prolonged civil war.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any organization with which she might be associated.

Rizwana Safdar

Author: Rizwana Safdar

The writer has holds an LLM degree in International Law from the University of Westminster, London. She is a former research assistant at Sheikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law (SAHSOL), LUMS.