Syria and the Politics of International Law
The chorus of American political and media elites (liberal and conservative alike) has once more trotted out the usual litany of justifications for a foreign bombing campaign, this time in Syria. The bombing, it has been argued, was necessary to enforce international law and ensure that the Assad regime will respect it in future. The West cannot sit idly by while the Assad regime continues to use chemical weapons against its own people. The attack is not only morally justified, but also legal. None of these arguments hold water. First, the United States is not enforcing international law by bombing Syria. American allies frequently break international law without the slightest criticism from Washington. Israel, for example, used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2014 (a war crime), and Saudi Arabia has created what the United Nations has described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with thousands of civilians targeted by Saudi warplanes, nationwide famine, and the outbreak of infectious disease on a massive scale.
The United States itself used depleted uranium in Iraq in 2003, which created a spike in cancer rates and has also harmed American soldiers. The United States has consistently protected its allies when they break international law, and their recent actions in Syria only serve to underline that superpower politics works by the selective application of international law to enemy states like Syria, North Korea, and Iran, not allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, past American airstrikes have proven completely ineffective in stopping Assad from using chemical weapons in Syria. The Assad regime’s military resources are wearing incredibly thin after nearly ten years of civil war, and when they stand to lose a city or district, as they recently did in Douma, they panic and resort to chemical weapons. This situation will not change: Bashar al-Assad will always be willing to endure an American bombing campaign if it means that he can hold more territory. The United States and its allies know this, which makes their bombing all the more cynical. They literally expect nothing tangible to come from this. Finally, if the United States (or Britain and France) cared about ordinary Syrians, perhaps they might have to allowed them to emigrate to their own countries and escape Assad’s brutality. Geopolitics camouflaged in the language of morality is, of course, nothing new, but in a fast-moving digital age as committed to the principle of historical amnesia as ours is, truisms bear repeating. Second, the American bombing campaign has no standing in international law whatever. Just because one country has broken international law, it does not follow that other countries have a right to attack it.
What has happened is rather that Syria has allegedly broken international law, and the United States and its allies have illegally attacked it. While it is very likely that Assad is responsible for the atrocities reported in Douma, the United States presented no evidence, and even hesitated—at least in public, as they waited for their British and French counterparts to agree to participate in the bombing campaign—to assert that Assad was, in fact, behind the attacks. An investigation by the OPCW was slated to take place in the coming weeks, and although a decision about whether the Syrian regime was behind the attacks falls outside of its mandate, it should have been allowed to run its course. Syria has not bombed the United States and its allies, and so the bombing campaign is not justified by self-defense. The proper legal route would have been a resolution condemning Syrian actions at the Security Council. Since Russia is on the Security Council and would have vetoed any such resolution (especially a resolution demanding immediate military action against Syria), the United States and its allies decided to duck international law and go it alone. The principle is clear: when you can’t get what you want by following the law, you break it by invoking the higher authority of morality.
But moral posturing by the United States and its allies fall on deaf ears in the Middle East. Everybody knows that the United States has never hesitated to condone the most heinous actions of its allies in the region, as it is now in Saudi Arabia. France and Britain are both arming the Saudis to the teeth as their merciless assault on Yemen continues unabated. The new Saudi prince and architect of the war on Yemen, Mohammed bin Salman, has been greeted in Western capitals as a bold reformer and described in the Western press with glowing praise, when he should be on trial for crimes against humanity.
The United States has consistently vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli war crimes in Gaza while thousands of innocent Gazans living in densely populated areas were slaughtered in 2014. More recently, Israel has shot and killed over 30 Palestinians peacefully demonstrating against an illegal Israeli blockade that has created conditions that the United Nations has described as “unlivable.” Not a word of criticism from Washington. The selective application of international law goes hand in hand with the selective application of the moral principles the West claims to uniquely uphold. Geopolitics masquerading as moral crusade is as old as politics itself. Entire nations are made to feel as if they play an indispensable role in the maintenance of a sacred global order while the political class recklessly pursues its narrow interests in far off lands. While Trump, May, and Macron laud the enlightened humanitarianism of military force in Syria, they risk igniting a global conflict of outsize proportions with a nuclear-armed Russia, whom they see as a threat, not to human rights and democracy, but to their own ability to retain control over the future of the Middle East.
Tarek R. Dika teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.