The United States has been involved in political conflicts in the Middle East for decades already, and in all that time, it has claimed to be acting perfectly in accordance with international law. And that’s true. While drone strikes in countries like Yemen and Pakistan have many critics, it cannot be said that they’re against the law. The same goes for the attacks on ISIS in Iraq, which are also completely legal. But now that the US has moved on to attack Syria… that’s when they ventured into illegal territory. But why? Why is Syria different? And what are the implications of that?
To answer those questions, we’ll have to take a quick look into the world of peacekeeping, particularly that of the United Nations. Traditionally, the way it was once intended, the United Nations takes care of peacekeeping missions to make sure that they are multilateral (performed by more than one country), and therefore impartial and neutral. However, this hasn’t worked for a long time: with both the US and Russia having the ability to veto any resolutions, agreement is awfully rare. Hardly any of the recent interventions by the US, then, had approval from the United Nations.
Still, I did just say that those previous interventions were legal. How is that possible then? The answer dates back all the way to 1648. Since that moment, when the peace treaty of Westphalia that ended the 30 year war was signed, there have been international laws in place that stress state sovereignty. These agreements have made sure that right now, no state can interfere with the business of any other, which would make it illegal for the US to use air strikes, let alone military force, in any of these countries. However, there are exceptions…
The most important exception is that the government of a certain state is allowed to give permission for another country to interfere. That is the case, for instance, in Yemen, where drone strikes have been going on for a decade, but also in Iraq, where the US recently began its attacks on the growing powers of ISIS. These states have given permission to the US, and because of that, they are allowed to interfere. The Syrian government, however, has done no such thing, and made it very clear that they would consider US intervention on their soil an inexcusable violation of international law. Considering such clear language, then, why is the US still doing it? How can they justify their intervention?
The answer to that question has two dimensions: self-defence, and the issue of who is actually in charge in Syria. Firstly, another exception to the rule of sovereignty laid out in 1648 is the case of self-defence. If there is imminent danger that a country might be attacked itself, then it can attack as needed. This is the justification used by the Bush administration when they couldn’t get permission to invade Iraq, something that is still the source of quite some controversy… (not least because it later appeared that there really was no imminent threat in the way Bush claimed there was, but also because such interventions sure didn’t make the anti-American sentiment any less strong, actually only increasing, or perhaps creating, the danger). But in the case of ISIS, there is absolutely no imminent danger for the US whatsoever.
Right now, there is a second argument, however, and that is that Assad’s government in Syria is not really the one in charge. Ever since the conflict in Syria began, the US has supported the rebels who fight against the current regime, and these rebels do give permission for the US to intervene. Perfectly reasonable then, right?
Well… perhaps. But there is one very interesting implication: Russia intervened in the Ukraine because the recently ousted government asked for help. According to the US, this was illegal, because while democratically elected, that government had been put aside, and its offspring is now considered a rebel group by Western countries. But now… now the US is doing the exact same thing: they are using a rebel group as their excuse to still abide by international law.
This means that, right now, both Russia and the US are accusing each other of breaking international law in the exact same way. They both believe that the other intervened in a conflict without permission from the ruling government, and both of them are completely right. It was illegal for Russia to intervene in the Ukraine in the exact same way as it is illegal for the US to intervene in Syria. And yet they both carry on, making excuses for their own policies that lead only to one big contradiction, a contradiction that cannot possibly be solved without admitting fault.
In the end, it is simply astonishing how similar Russia and the US are, while their dialogue remains so hostile. We all believe that our country is in the right, while in reality, both are equally wrong, and both are breaking international law.
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