First Published: 2018-04-14

Western powers walk legal tightrope with Syria strikes
In striking Syria without UN authorisation, United States, Britain, France are relying on nebulous concept of "legal morality".
Middle East Online

"Breaking international law with the goal of ensuring it is respected."

PARIS - Britain, France and the US struck suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities Saturday in retaliation for a "clear violation" of international law, but experts warned they were on dubious legal ground themselves in carrying out the unilateral action.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the alleged use of chemicals last weekend in the rebel-held city of Douma was a blatant breach of several resolutions taken against Syria by the UN Security Council.

British Prime Minister Theresa May also called the strikes "right and legal", saying the international community would not tolerate the continued use of chemical weapons.

France says Syria has maintained a clandestine chemical arms programme since 2013 -- when Damascus ostensibly signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) -- which could encourage the use of such weapons by other repressive regimes.

In an analysis released Saturday, French intelligence services said "evidence collected" showed about 11 chemical attacks, mostly involving chlorine, since April 4, 2017, when sarin gas was used in Khan Sheikhoun.

That attack, which killed 88 people, sparked international outrage and prompted US President Donald Trump's first strikes against the Syrian regime.

"For us, a normalisation of chemical weapons use is a threat for our collective security that cannot go without a response," a source in Macron's office told AFP.

But Moscow, Syria's main backer in the seven-year civil war, immediately demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, saying the Western powers had violated "the UN charter and the norms and principles of international law".

Analysts agreed that in striking Syria without UN authorisation -- impossible given Russia's repeated vetoes on the Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France were relying instead on a nebulous concept of "legal morality".

"The violation of conventions doesn't give you the right to use force," said Francoise Saulnier, legal director at the Doctors Without Borders aid group, which has a long history of intervening in humanitarian crises.

Under UN rules, military force against a foreign power is allowed under just three conditions: legitimate self-defence, at the request of the country where it would occur, or in case of a Security Council authorisation.

- 'Smokescreen' -

Western officials are also insisting on the moral argument for action, saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be stopped from using particularly cruel and outlawed weapons.

"UN resolutions have been taken, and today we might be outside the framework of these resolutions, but we are within the framework of international law: This dictator is murdering his own people," Jean-Jacques Bridey, head of the French parliament's defence commission, said this past week.

But resorting to such arguments is risky, analysts say, since they could open the door to the unilateral use of force in any number of situations -- in particular by regimes who have already shown little regard for international law.

"Legal morality is an absolute trap, because what's moral for you isn't for me," said Didier Billion of France's Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

"What would give France and the US the right to bomb a state?" he said, dismissing their arguments as a "smokescreen".

For Patrick Baudouin, a lawyer with the International Federation for Human Rights in Paris, "it's breaking international law with the goal of ensuring it is respected."

"It's the idea that there is some sort of international humanitarian law based on a 'responsibility to protect'. But this isn't something laid down in international law."

Saulnier at Doctors Without Borders agreed that such notions were "empty concepts" that could backfire.

"What's dangerous is that the West, already waging a war against non-state actors in Syria, is risking an escalation toward international conflict in order to potentially get back to the negotiating table" for ending the seven-year civil war, she said.

But by trying to get around the established rules on using force, "we're liquidating the legal structures built since World War II," Saulnier said, warning of a return to "gunboat diplomacy".


Russia mulls supplying S-300 missile systems to Syria

Morocco, EU start talks on new fisheries deal

Bashir fires Sudan foreign minister

US has 'concerns' about Turkey holding fair vote under state of emergency

Saudi women embrace sports headscarves

Rouhani slams officials' 'vow of silence' in face of protests

Natalie Portman says backed out of Israel prize over Netanyahu

Rebels set to leave new area outside Damascus

FIFA to return to Morocco to check hotels, stadiums

Turkey in shock after violent Istanbul derby

Iraq pays first war reparations to Kuwait since 2014

Fiery kites adopted as new tactic by Gaza protesters

Romanian president slams plan to move Israel embassy

Western strikes on Syria bring no change whatsoever

Trump criticises OPEC for high oil prices

Syria says rebels south of capital surrender

Market has capacity to absorb higher oil prices: Saudi minister

Putin 'ready' for Trump summit

Saudi Arabia to host first public film screening

HRW criticises Lebanon for evicting Syria refugees

Saudi says intercepted ballistic missile from Yemen

Washington: Assad still has 'limited' chemical capability

European MPs urge US not to scrap Iran deal

Oil price soars to highest level in years

Two more pro-Kurdish MPs stripped of Turkey seats

Oil theft 'costing Libya over $750 million annually'

Turkey's snap polls: bold gambit or checkmate for Erdogan?

Iran arrests senior official over public concert

Bahrain sentences 24 to jail, strips citizenship

UN experts urge Iran to cancel Kurd's death sentence

Moderate quake strikes near Iran nuclear power plant

Syria regime forces caught in surprise IS attack

Turkey sentences 18 to life for killing ‘hero’ coup soldier

Exxon faces setback in Iraq as oil and water mix

Libya to clamp down on fuel smuggling

Yemen to arrest colonel for overlooking African migrant rape

Erdogan sends Turkey to snap polls on June 24

Qatar joins Gulf military exercise in apparent compromise

Saudi-Russia oil alliance likely to undercut OPEC

UN in security talks with Syria on chemical probe

Riyadh says two al Qaeda militants killed in Yemen

Record of women candidates in Lebanon, but you can't tell from TV

Sudan protests to UN over Egypt voting in disputed area

Erdogan calls Turkey snap polls for June 24

Rights watchdog say African migrants face rape, torture in Yemen