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Opinion

US intervention in Syria must be legitimate in eyes of international law (+video)

Israeli air strikes on Damascus and the conflicting reports on the use of chemical weapons (sarin gas) may complicate President Obama's decision on intervention in Syria. The US must consider the international laws of war before taking any action.

By James P. Rudolph / May 6, 2013

Damaged buildings wrecked by an Israeli airstrike are seen in Damascus, May 5. Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the Syrian capital early Sunday, setting off a series of explosions as they targeted a shipment of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles believed to be on their way to Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, officials and activists said.

SANA (Syrian official news agency)/AP

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La Jolla, Calif.

Everyone seems to agree that the situation in Syria is unimaginably horrific and heartrending. But the consensus seems to break down when the subject of solutions is broached. Now, the reported use of chemical weapons (sarin gas) raises the stakes of the crisis – and outside intervention – considerably.

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White House Spokesman Jay Carney said Monday it's highly likely Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, not the rebel opposition, was behind any chemical weapons use in Syria. (May 6)

President Obama, who warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer,” is likely considering some kind of response beyond the nonlethal aid already given to Syria’s rebels. Alleged Israeli strikes on Damascus over the weekend may complicate matters. And many questions remain. One of the most important deals with whether US intervention in Syria would be “legal” under the UN Charter without Security Council backing.

And that legality matters. It can determine the costs of and allies involved in an intervention, set precedents for future military campaigns, and can increase or decrease the likelihood of future wars in general.

Even if the Security Council doesn’t sanction a Syrian intervention, any move by the United States to “put boots on the ground” in Syria could still be well supported by the international laws of war – and the demands of the UN Charter. And intervention to protect Syrian civilians may finally pressure Russia to finally give UN Security Council support for such a move.

Several lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, are either calling on the president to put “boots on the ground” or refusing to rule that out as an option. Doing so, they argue, will increase the pressure on the Syrian regime and demonstrate to Iran that we mean what we say.

However, consistent vetoes from Russia at the UN Security Council on further action in Syria make it unlikely the international body will back any military intervention there – at least for the time being. This is unfortunate, as the UN is the most prominent international organization and therefore shouldn’t be consigned to irrelevance as Syria is turned into a charnel house.

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