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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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As we know from painful experience, plunging headlong into the affairs of another state based on incomplete intelligence is not a prudent course of action. Obama is rightfully reviewing the intelligence reports and consulting with allies before making any decisions. Americans should expect nothing less.

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Having legal justification for an intervention is vital. The 1999 US-NATO intervention in the Kosovo crisis was deemed technically “illegal” under international law but legitimate according to the criteria above. The absence of full legality, however, weakened the case for intervention, even though most people agree that it was morally right to act. It’s known as the Kosovo exception, and many argue that it led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Creating more loopholes and exceptions to the UN Charter through unilateral action undermines its legal framework and thus increases the likelihood that others will claim similar dispensations.

An “illegal” action will also doubtless be more expensive for the country engaging in it (see Iraq), as others will not be available to assist. Finally, many argue that a strict adherence to the rules makes war less likely, and therefore minimizes the chances that the horrors of war will be visited upon ordinary citizens.

It is possible, of course, that if the US and others move forward with a military intervention to protect the people of Syria, the action may push Russia to relent in its objections, thereby allowing the Security Council to be involved in whatever response is warranted.

But if Russia's cooperation is not forthcoming, Obama will be faced with a politically unpalatable predicament: increasing the involvement of the US military in Syria’s civil war without the blessing of the Security Council and in the face of public opposition or losing face by not following through on his own red line (the use of chemical weapons).

In any case, it seems likely that some kind of military response is in the works, so Obama’s reliance on the law of war criteria noted above will be especially important. How Obama responds will have long-lasting repercussions not only for Syria, Americans, and his legacy, but the precedents of international law as well.

James P. Rudolph is a lawyer licensed in California and Washington, D.C. who focuses on international law and human rights. He worked at the US Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration.


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