The Airstrikes on Syria: the Syrian Government’s perspective.

Disclaimer: this blogpost attempts to look at the Syrian conflict, more specifically, Airstrikes by several global powers including the US and the UK, from the point of view of the Syrian government. This blogpost will also attempt to represent the Syrian government in terms of legal arguments but also using the language it typically uses. However, this post is not meant to endorse either the actions of the Syrian government or their arguments. It only attempts to present a different view of the airstrikes that is not in the mainstream debate.

President Bashar El Assad has recently decried the airstrikes conducted by the United States and its allies against Syrian territory calling it ‘illegal’ and will end up exacerbating the situation by creating more radicalisation. It is an established fact that Syria, represented by its government, is recognised  by the United Nations and is a member of its General Assembly, has refrained from the use of force in dealing with other states during its civil unrest beginning in 2011. While the US and its allies have committed various violations of international law with varying degrees of severity.

Argument Against Self-defence

The concept of self-defence was expanded to include anticipatory self-defence as well as reprisals after 9/11. More justifications were made by powerful states in order to skirt international law and was supported by apologist scholars, such as the widening of the principles of attribution. Megret argues in his piece “‘War’? Legal Semantics and the Move to Violence” that after 9/11 there was a movement to exceptionalize conflict by using the word ‘war’ in order to justify violating international law and to move away from the strict letter of the law. He argues that states are the primary actors when it comes to armed conflict. Aggression, which warrants a response, can only come from states as opposed to non-state actors. This has been supported by the Nicaragua Case (paras. 246- 249) as well as the Advisory Opinion on the Separation Wall (paras. 138-141)

The US has done this in Afghanistan and now in Syria where it is committing an act of aggression against the Syrian people and desires to change the political system by doing so. In terms of self-defence, according to Megret, the response is meant to be both immediate and necessary and it is certainly not anticipatory. The attacks by ISIL though completely unfortunate and deplorable do not warrant an attack on Syrian territory, being as self-defence works only if  an attack is imminent and its response immediate and necessary. This is also supported by Article 51 of the UN Charter as well as the Caroline test. Syrians were the first ones to be affected by the terror of ISIL and yet they have attacked no one.

Furthermore, Megret argues that the US has expanded the definition of responsibility to justify its attack on Afghanistan by claiming that the Taliban was harbouring terrorists, which is not an action that prompts self-defense. According to the Nicaragua test, the International Law Commission Draft Articles on State Responsibility, even the wider Tadic Judgment, which all require some form of effective control with varying degrees of responsibility do not put the Syrian government under any kind of legal imputation.  ISIL is not in any way controlled by the Syrian Government. In fact, it is the Syrian government which is fighting ISIL with men on the ground. From another perspective, if any country wished to fight ISIL, it must be done with coordination and according to particular conditions with the Syrian government as is pointed out by General Assembly Resolution 3314 as well as several ICJ rulings, and not carrying out such terms would also constitute aggression.

Illegality of Supporting Rebels and Airstrikes

It is also an established fact that Syria has been fighting terrorism within its borders by those who wish to destroy the Syrian state, represented by the Un-Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant as well as several other terrorist organisations, some of which are supported by Western powers such as the US, France, and UK as well as some Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. They have supplied the Supreme Military Council, a terrorist organization, with non-lethal weaponry, lethal weaponry as well as food and training. The very fact that Western powers support and fund such organisations is a violation of state sovereignty and political independence. Not only are the US and its allies supporting terrorist organisations, they have said time and time again that the government under Bashar El Assad cannot stand. This all comes in direct violation of Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter which states that ‘all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state…’ 

Moreover, support to terrorists brings into question the Nicaragua test on effective control. The US and its allies may very well be exercising effective control over the Supreme Military Council and perhaps other groups of rebels. If indeed this is the case, this would  constitute an armed attack, which would warrant a proportionate action in self defence. However, the Nicaragua Case clearly that supporting rebels against the government is a clear violation of non-intervention. Even during a civil war, states are not allowed to intervene without the express consent of the government. This is confirmed in paragraphs 42-52 of DRC vs. Uganda, which establishes consent as a necessity for intervention in civil wars.  While no clear rule exists on supporting opposition in a civil war. Russia, an ally, has obtained the Syrian government’s permission to fight ISIL and was allowed to help in the Syrian struggle against terrorism. However, if a state or a group of states, whether supported by the Security Council or not, simply decides to enter Syrian territory without its consent, under all definitions it would be regarded as aggression. The Nicaragua case clearly faults the United States for its interference in Nicaragua when it used similar arguments.

The airstrikes conducted by the US and its Arab allies prior to the UNSC Resolution 2249 of November 2015 are not only a violation of the UN Charter and general international law but they also constitute aggression according to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3314. According to Article 3, ‘bombardment by the armed forces of a State against the territory of another State or the use of any weapons by a State against the territory of another State’ is regarded as aggression, which is also described as a crime against peace.

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Wikipedia

It would be remiss not to mention Security Council Resolution 2249 of November 2015, allowing for such actions to take place. It is the view of the Syrian government that such a resolution is in fact illegal according to international law, for the Security Council is ultimately a political body seeking out the interests of its member states. Therefore, like every other political body, it must be bound by international law. The claim of aggression is not entirely invalidated by the Security Council Resolution, the Security Council must respond to other claims of violations of international law, which has taken on a much looser interpretation to fit the whims of the powerful. The Security Council is bound in its powers, as confirmed by the Chamber of Appeals in the ICTY as well as the International Court of Justice in 1995 and 1948 respectively. This power is at the very least bounded by the provisions of the UN Charter as well as its object and purpose. This can be seen as a possible way to challenge Security Council action based on a number of provisions in the Charter, including Article 2(4) and Article 2(1) on self-determination as the US and its allies have repeatedly supported rebels and stated that the downfall of the regime is necessary.

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Nuclear Apocalypse is not Illegal ?!

nuclear_explosion

One of the great fears that face humanity nowadays is related to the question of whether our species is going to stand the test of time, or go extinct like many others. From the many versions of how our civilization is going to end, the greatest fear of all is self-destruction through the use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear apocalypse was and is still present in the imagination of our cultures. As a result of that, one would expect the international community to have a very firm view on the illegality of the use of such weapons of mass destruction. Surprisingly enough, the International Court of Justice in its advisory opinion on the threat or use of nuclear weapons was actually inconclusive. I am going to argue against this ambiguous opinion of the ICJ. I am going to clarify the reasons why the ICJ’s opinion should have been definitive on the illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons no matter what. Although this advisory opinion was in July 1996, I think we need to reemphasize the issue again. The reason for this is that we are living in a more insecure world. There is more Climate Change problems which are affecting the economies of many countries. Also there are more religious and political conflicts. All of this sets the world for more competition and more rivalry, which should make us wary of the danger of the existence of nuclear weapons.

According to the advisory opinion of the ICJ, the threat or use of nuclear weapons is generally contrary to the principles of the international law with the exception of the extreme cases of self defense. This is demonstrated in point (E) of the second clause of the dispositif;

It follows from the above-mentioned requirements that the threat
or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules
of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular
the principles and rules of humanitarian law;
However, in view of the current state of international law, and of
the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude
definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be
lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in
which the very survival of a State would be at stake

The controversy of the point of extreme case of self defense is clarified by the voting on this clause, as it was seven votes to seven by the president’s casting vote. This controversy one would expect from a political discussion not in an opinion of the ICJ. This point is the main direction of my critique, but there is also point (B) in the same clause in which the court states that;

There is in neither customary nor conventional international law
any comprehensive and universal prohibition of the threat or use
of nuclear weapons as such

From the court’s point of view the fact that nuclear weapons have grave effects on the environment does not conclude the total ban of their use in certain circumstances. It is because the environmental concerns can possibly  be tolerated if there exists the requisite military necessity. We can accept this if the effects of nuclear weapons are of limited effect and can be contained, but it is obvious that the effects of nuclear weapons cannot be controlled. These effects are of great and massive effects not preceded by any other type of weaponry. Thus their effects on the environment do not concern just the parties involved in the conflict; they involve the whole planet.

According to the ICRC, international humanitarian law bans the use of weapons which cause superfluous injuries or unnecessary suffering by their nature. Although IHL does not explicitly ban the threat or use of nuclear weapons, but the very nature of these weapons contradicts with the ban of superfluous or unnecessary suffering. The use of nuclear weapons also contradicts with the principles of protecting civilians in armed conflicts, as they do not discriminate in their destruction. This is because even if they are targeted in a way to only achieve military objectives, their effects such as radiation cannot be controlled. They might also violate the right of neutrality, as they might harm other states that are not party to the conflict.

As for the point of using nuclear weapons in self defense, it is known that any state in using its legitimate right of self defense has to follow the principles of necessity and proportionality. The ICJ does not clarify in its opinion the difference between the extreme case of self defense and the normal case. This is a new type of classification originated by the court. Perhaps the court meant to explain this by inserting the phrase ‘when the very survival of the state is at stake’, but even this is a very vague statement. It can be interpreted differently which contradicts with the purpose of the advisory opinion. May be what is meant is the case when the state is facing a nuclear attack. In that case, I do not see the reason for the probable legality for their use of nuclear weapons as a means of defense. Nuclear weapons by their nature can only be used for offense. If we assume that a state is being attacked by a nuclear weapon, how can it use a nuclear weapon to defend itself? It would be an act of reprisal that is not allowed by international law. The argument that an attacking state will learn that it will be equally damaged if it uses a nuclear weapon is not a good argument or else we can use it to justify any reprisal actions.

My critique can be wonderfully represented in the dissenting opinion of judge Weeramantry in which he states;

My considered opinion is that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons
is illegal in any circumstances whatsoever. It violates the fundamental
principles of international law, and represents the very negation of the
humanitarian concerns which underlie the structure of humanitarian law. It offends conventional law and, in particular, the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925, and Article 23 (a) of the Hague Regulations of 1907. It contradicts the fundamental principle of the dignity and worth of the human person on which all law depends. It endangers the human environment in a manner which threatens the entirety of life on the planet.

He is on the firm ground that the court should have settled the legal question in favor of banning the threat or use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

In conclusion, the topic in question clearly shows the indeterminacy of international law on the matter, which clearly shows the need for a direct global cooperation on the general ban on the threat or use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. The use of such weapons is not of the concern of the individual wills of states, it is a matter of global importance and the political consideration should be put aside in such an issue that involves the survival of our species and our whole planet.