WashU Expert: Syrian air strikes not in line with international law

Although one can fault the Obama administration for its tepid policy towards Syria, President Trump’s April 6 air strikes against a Syrian military base take the U.S. policy towards Syria to a new low, said an expert on international war crimes at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Because the strikes are aimed at a sovereign government, they clearly violate article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, unless they are justified either as self defense or authorized by the United Nations Security Council. Neither justification is present here,” said Leila Sadat, the James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law, director of the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute and special advisor on crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court prosecutor.


Another possibility for the strikes would be humanitarian intervention, Sadat said. But that also requires UN Security Council authorization, although “in exceptional circumstances, humanitarian intervention without clear authorization has been perceived by at least some sectors of the international community as legitimate in certain carefully conditioned circumstances.”

One of those conditions may be present in this instance based upon Trump’s statements regarding the purpose of the strikes, Sadat said. The strikes were aimed to prevent further commission of ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes by the Syrian regime, which is widely reported to have been responsible for the Sarin gas attacks earlier this week.  That is why many have argued that the strike may have been morally justifiable.

The other conditions for the strikes’ legality, however, are woefully absent, Sadat said.

“There is still no conclusion to the UN investigation into the origin and authors of the strike against Khan Shaykhun. Moreover, it is likely that the strikes will aggravate the ongoing crisis in Syria, as there appears to be no ‘end-game’ or larger policy direction to the U.S. intervention,” she said. “Although a UN Resolution was tabled on April 4 by France, the U.S. and the U.K., that resolution has not been voted on, although efforts were ongoing prior to the missile strikes to reach consensus.  The U.S. air strikes have effectively short-circuited that discussion, which makes it nearly impossible to put together the kind of broad coalition that could have given the strikes international legitimacy, as the Clinton administration did with respect to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia.”

“As a policy matter, the U.S. president appears to have no comprehensive strategy towards the Syrian conflict, and as a question of U.S. law, there was no Congressional authorization for the bombings, which do not appear to be justified under the current resolutions authorizing the use of force in Syria,” Sadat said. “If President Trump could turn this into a broad international effort, it could acquire legitimacy. But  I’m not sure  I see that happening.”

Although it’s tempting to “savor the Assad government’s temporary comeuppance,” the intervention is unlikely to produce either any immediate positive results on the ground or any long-term benefits, she said.

“It seems more in the guise of a dangerous and illegal tit-for-tat, suggesting that it really was not about saving Syrian lives at all, but improving poor approval ratings at home, reminiscent of Clinton’s strikes in 1998, which were also widely seen as diversionary,” Sadat said. “Aggressive war, war crimes and crimes against humanity are illegal under international law no matter which state or head of state perpetrates them. That is the law.”

Sadat’s comments are her own and not on behalf of the International Criminal Court. Sadat is available for media interview at (314) 304-2757 or by email at sadat@wustl.edu.

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