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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.

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But action outside the framework of the UN – i.e., unilateral action – appears increasingly likely. Many will argue that the use of force in the absence of Security Council authorization (other than self-defense) is illegal; others will stress the primacy of human rights. It might be that the absence of Security Council authorization will render any operation illegal under international law, but that same law (including the UN Charter) obligates member states to act in the face of mass atrocities and large-scale human suffering.

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If Mr. Obama and other international leaders pursue military intervention in Syria, they will ideally be guided by a concept known within the law of war as “jus ad bellum.” That is, the conditions under which a state is justified in resorting to war in the first place.

In order for the use of force to be justified, the following five criteria must be consulted: the seriousness of the harm; the primary purpose of the proposed action; the existence and viability of peaceful alternatives; the proportionality of the response; and, finally, the balance of consequences.

The seriousness of harm. In the case of Syria, the world is witnessing savagery and butchery the likes of which we haven’t seen since Rwanda. More than 70,000 people have been killed; civilians have been deliberately targeted; and the number of internally displaced persons now stands at more than 3 million, a situation the UN high commissioner for refugees calls the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the cold war. This element, in other words, is not in doubt.

The primary purpose. The primary purpose of the intervention must be to halt the suffering. To be sure, ancillary considerations (for example deterring Iran, a strong ally of the Assad regime in Syria) can be present. But these considerations must not constitute the crux of the operation.

All publicly available comments from the White House indicate that any escalation of US force in Syria would be in the form of increased assistance to the rebels fighting Mr. Assad, the ultimate purpose of which would be to halt his ability to inflict more pain and suffering.

Peaceful alternatives. Obama must consider the existence of peaceful alternatives before committing to a more robust military response. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the United States remains interested in facilitating a political transition whereby Assad would voluntarily go into exile. After more than two years of conflict, however, it appears certain that the regime will instead fight to the death.

A proportional response. Whatever course of action Obama decides to take must be proportional. That is, the assistance given must be tied to the ultimate goal of the operation (the cessation of suffering). Anything beyond what is militarily necessary to accomplish that goal would be unjustified.

Balance of consequences. Obama and his national security staff must consider the extent to which intervention might actually exacerbate the situation in Syria. In other words, could boots on the ground or missile strikes cause the regime in Damascus to double down by unleashing the full extent of its chemical weapons arsenal? Or alternatively, could the overt involvement of the US on the side of the rebels increase the possibility that Iran would intervene to protect its most important ally, thus triggering a regional conflict?

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