Syria and the Law 160

The legal position is perfectly clear. Syria has a recognised government, that of President Assad, represented at the United Nations. That government is legally entitled to call on Russian military assistance. Russian military action against ISIL is therefore legal.

By contrast, US and French military action has neither the sanction of the Syrian government nor the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. It is therefore plainly illegal.

Neo-con propagandists have attempted in the last fifteen years to promote a new doctrine known as the “responsibility to protect”. This is identical to intellectual justifications of Imperialism from sixteenth century Spain through to Victorian England and Imperial Russia. It holds that misgovernment of less developed nations justifies military action against them by more developed countries out of humanitarian concern. It runs directly to the established international law of non-interference and the need for Security Council sanction of military action. The “responsibility to protect” is not enshrined in any generally accepted international treaty – certainly nothing that overrides the provisions of the UN charter – and is not accepted by the large majority of the countries in the world. It is not customary international law and remains a propaganda phrase, not a legal concept.

Finally, I should add that on precisely the same arguments, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is, beyond any doubt, illegal.

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160 thoughts on “Syria and the Law

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  • eddie-g

    The so-called “responsibility to protect” is cynically abused. It is a slippery concept that you would never want trusted in the hands of a politician – even one you might like. And undisputedly, we are always in a clearer position if the UN Security council sanctions intervention – Libya being a good recent example.

    But I also think it’s wrong to assume that there is no reasonable argument behind the case for what have previously been called humanitarian interventions. The UN Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights do not resolve a fundamental question over whether the rights of states or the rights of individuals have primacy. And depending where you come out on this issue, you may reach very different views on permissible use of force.

    It remains the case that I don’t trust politicians claiming intervention for humanitarian reasons (the last time I did, it involved Kosovo), but there are respected international law scholars who believe international law should be read as treating the rights of the individual as superior to those of the state.

  • Mark Golding

    In his Orwellian September 28, 2015 speech to the United Nations, President Obama said that if democracy had existed in Syria, there never would have been a revolt against Assad. By that, he meant ISIL. Where there is democracy, he said, there is no violence or revolution.

    This was his threat to promote revolution, coups and violence against any country not deemed a “democracy.” In making this hardly-veiled threat, he redefined the word in the vocabulary of international politics. Democracy is the CIA’s overthrow of Mossedegh in Iran to install the Shah. Democracy is the overthrow of Afghanistan’s secular government by the Taliban against Russia. Democracy is the Ukrainian coup behind Yats and Poroshenko. Democracy is Pinochet. It is “our bastards,” as Lyndon Johnson said, with regard to the Latin American dictators installed by U.S. foreign policy.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita e' bella)


    I believe it was you who said you had lived in Syria for quite a time and/or had travelled there extensively?

    If so, I wonder if you’d care satisfy my curiosity, which was aroused by the following from MJ:

    “Support for Assad is pretty high, over 50% in most polls and surveys if you seek them out.”

    My question is: would you agree, on the basis of your own experience in Syria, with various travel writers who have commented (this was before the civil war there, of course) the the Syrian secret police is quite thick on the ground and that it was very difficult to get the Syrian in the street to tell a foreigner what he thought about President Assad and his govt.?


    PS – just remembered to ask you another one: did you come across any blogs similar to this one when you lived in Syria?

  • Jon

    Uzbek in the UK, you seem to be arguing for a “humanitarian” ripping up of international law, which does not place you in good company – isn’t that what the neocons have argued, and still argue, in relation to their ongoing wars?

    The “watch peacefully and see how many are slaughtered” is emotive propaganda in support of the same. But if international law becomes optional for the powerful, to the cheers of the comfortable, would more innocent lives be lost, or less? It is a rhetorical question, and I do not have an answer in the general case – though I suggest that humanitarian intervention has largely been discredited in the last decade or so.

    In Iraq I think it is clear that our “kindness” – if it can be called that – has killed many hundreds of thousands, possibly over a million, i.e. significantly more than if Saddam’s regime had been left alone. And that’s not counting the death toll visited upon them by sanctions beforehand. Iraq is a brutalised country thanks to the doctrine of R2P and its ilk.

    I do not plan to suggest there is an easy way forward to reduce the suffering in the world, but then neither should you. Offering propaganda support to vicious hawks in the West is, I worry, not the formula for the amelioration of suffering at all.

  • Beth

    I only started reading this blog because I was inspired by a speech Craig gave in Cupar during the Independence campaign. When I was on holiday in Syria I was running after my kids, visiting family, sightseeing, enjoying the lovely weather and food. I didn’t even have a laptop in 2010 which was the last time I was in Syria. So no , I wasn’t going round interviewing people. All I can say is that I love Syria and I am so sad about what has happened.

  • Beth

    You are welcome Craig. I don’t think you got enough credit for the thousands you brought to the Yes side.

  • John S Warren

    While I do not wish to appear ‘casual’ about the legalities, in the world of realpolitik in which we are condemned to live, I believe there is a more fundamental problem with Western military interventionism in the Middle East than the law: its failure to produce effective results.

    I am at loss to understand why the desire to intervene remains so high, in Britain for example, when the returns as so obviously and uniformly disastrous. This is not merely a matter of sobering military failure (but the complete British military failure in Basra must have had an effect, even on MoD planning). The failure is not merely a matter of strategy or tactics, but more profoundly of intelligence, which appears to be consistently inadequate. At a policy level, for example only, in Afghanistan; before we formed a coherent intervention strategy for Afghanistan or Helmand province, how many (policy-influential) members of the FCO or Intelligence Services were fluent Pashtun speakers?

  • bevin

    The situation in the Ukraine is actually like that in Syria. In both countries the United States intervened-openly and loudly- employing local agents and foreign mercenaries to overthrow the de jure government.
    Naturally these actions wee accompanied by clouds of misinformation, propaganda and ex post facto apologies for violent attacks on the government and civilian populations.
    The only difference is that, in Ukraine, the ‘revolution’ to install a US puppet regime was successful, whereas, in Syria, which has been dealing with similar US actions since the late 1940s, it succeeded only in killing tens of thousands of civilians as well as those defending their country against invaders.

    It surprises me that people who ought to know better are so uncritical of the media propaganda which insults their intelligence every day and that, even on a blog such as this, it is not just the trolls who trot out the familiar apologies for invasion- from ‘barrel bombs’ to ‘killing his own people’. The fact that this drivel from the Alistair Campbells of NATO, was used in Libya and Iraq seems to make little difference. Some people seem incapable of understanding that their governments lie all the time and that no government lies more consistently and ruthlessly than that of the United States.
    What Russia is doing, with great restraint, in Ukraine, is actually what Britain, Bernard Henri Levy and the US claimed to be doing in Benghazi, namely defending civilians against a ruthless dictatorial regime. The difference being that, while there has never been any evidence of an aerial attack on the city being planned by Ghadaffi, the coup forces in Kiev, headed by neo-nazi gangs, not only threatened genocide against Russians but have launched waves of attacks on Donbas communities, killing thousands.

    As to the law, it cannot work so long as the United States refuses to acknowledge that it applies to its actions. The reality is that the United States is involved in illegal interventions, involving actual armed agents, in more than a hundred countries. One of them is the United Kingdom in which US agents have been actively involved since the beginning of the Cold War. And that is in a country which is governed, and long has been, by very reliable puppets of Washington.

    Those reactionaries who complain that Corbyn is unready to employ nuclear weapons to ‘defend’ Britain are actually complaining that he would hesitate- as Tony Blair never would- to order British troops to act as auxiliaries in US adventures. Patriotism has come to mean, in this age of Orwellian language, sacrificing the interests of the state and its population for the benefit of the American ruling class.

  • Mary

    For Yemen, read Afghanistan. The coalition there were good at shredding and burning members of wedding parties.

    Tue Sep 29, 2015
    Death toll from air strike on Yemen wedding party rises above 130: medics


    Similarly, the Israeli airforce made four ‘air strikes’ on Gaza yesterday in retaliation against ONE of those homemade rockets that was launched and destroyed.

    Israel strikes Gaza in response to rocket fire

    Air force hits 4 ‘terror sites’ after Iron Dome intercepts projectile over Ashdod; IS-affiliated Salafist group claims responsibility; IDF holds Hamas accountable

    The Times of Israel is so well informed.

    ‘An Islamic State-affiliated Salafist group called the Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade claimed responsibility for the rocket attack on social media, charging that it was a response to the fatal shooting of a young Palestinian woman at a checkpoint in the West Bank last week, and the arrest of an Israeli Arab woman for allegedly joining the Islamic State. Hadeel al-Hashlamon, 18, was shot last Tuesday at a checkpoint in the city of Hebron. The military said she was attempting to stab a soldier when troops opened fire.’

    I can’t see any mention of this on their website though.

    ‘Leg Of Detained Wounded Child To Be Amputated
    Wednesday September 30, 2015
    The Palestinian Detainees’ Committee has reported, Wednesday, that surgeons in the Hadassah Ein Karem Israeli Hospital, in occupied Jerusalem, have decided to amputate the leg of a wounded, and detained, Palestinian child.

    Note that the child, Issa Adnan Abdul-Mo’ty, is handcuffed and shackled to his bed. He was shot in the leg with a dumdum bullet that expanded on impact. He is 13. His injury looks horrific in this photo.

  • lysias

    The first actual use of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention of which I am aware is the Kosovo War. It was largely based on claims of genocide that turned out, after the fact, to have been mythical.

    When Russia has tried, recently, to use the precedent of Kosovo to justify what it has been doing to Ukraine, the West claimed, unpersuasively, that the two situations are not comparable.

  • lysias

    When U.S. bombing of ISIS began, I recall reading articles claiming that the U.S. action had the tacit approval of the Syrian government. Do we know that is false?

  • Ba'al Zevul

    Nice to see the Wikipedia entry on MEMRI after all these years following the neocons, Mary. As we old PNAC hands know (without looking it up), MEMRI was set up by Meyrav Wurmser, which should be an instant alert for spotters of dual-allegiance American hegemonists, and, oh, the hell with it, here’s an old 2002 Guardian summary. Just before the neocons’ Iraq wet dream came true. It doesn’t begin to explore the links, though.

    The things I do for people who don’t actually do background.

    Murky doesn’t begin to describe it.

  • Mary

    Israel is itching for war.

    Israel strikes Syria after stray rockets land in Golan
    Israel bombs Syrian army positions in response to ‘misfired’ rockets that landed in the Israeli-occupied territory.
    27 Sep 2015
    Israeli army attacks Syrian town after rocket attacks

    Bombardments against Quneitra come after Syrian military allegedly launched rocket attack that struck northern Israel.
    20 Aug 2015

    and many times before these attacks.

  • craig Post author


    Not really, no. Russia could have taken a position that the ouster of Yanukovich was illegal, that he was still President and they were intervening at his request. This was the British argument in Sierra Leone. I do not agree with the argument – in either case – , but it is arguable.

    But Russia has not taken that position, does not argue that Yanukovich is still President, recognises the current Ukrainian government and appears to acknowledge Russian intervention as illegal by denying (entirely unconvincingly) that it is happening.

  • Republicofscotland

    It was interesting to note the demeanour of both Obama and Putin as they awkwardly shook hands, with minimal eye contact at the UN GA.

    Neither man appears to be on relaxed speaking terms, yet Obama has overstretched himself, and now sees Putin’s semi influence within the Bashar al-Assad regime as a crucial part of moving forward on Syria.

    David Cameron has stated that Assad, cannot be part of the solution, as has France’s president Hollande. However the removal of Assad to me anyway, for now, seems less likely, now that Obama, has extented the cold hand of tolerance to Putin.

    Bolstering Assad’s position, is the Russian military build up in the or close to the North-West border of Syria, Putin as though mocking the West, claims they are their to target the ever increasing threat of Daesh.

    Iran is also a close ally of Syria, but what must come as blow to Assad, Iranian president Rouhani has said Iran will help pave the way to a democracy.

    In my opinion Obama and his coalition, will for now have to soften their stance on Assad and his governing regime, that is if they don’t want come into conflict with Russia, over Syria.

    I fully expect though, that Assad will be deposed in the long term.

  • Tom Welsh

    Bevin’s description of the situation in Ukraine is accurate. The violent coup d’etat that overthrew the democratically elected Yanukovich government was completely illegal. Never mind Russian and non-aligned views of the matter, the American political analyst George Friedman admitted openly that “Russia calls the events that took place at the beginning of this year a coup d’etat organized by the United States. And it truly was the most blatant coup in history”.

    “I should add that on precisely the same arguments, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is, beyond any doubt, illegal”.

    What do you mean, Craig, by “Russia’s intervention in Ukraine”? On the one hand there was the near-unanimous choice of Crimean citizens to rejoin Russia, in the face of threatened hideous violence against them by the illegal Kiev regime and its openly Nazi supporters. On the other hand, there is the armed resistance of the Donbass republics (DPR and LPR) to the Kiev regime’s attempt to conquer (and quite possible exterminate) them using the full power of the Ukraine armed forces – artillery, multiple rocket launchers, tanks, mortars, and on several occasions actual ballistic missiles.

    Russia has actually responded to those blatant and cynical provocations in a way that was quite unexpected by Washington and its little Nazi friends in Kiev. Instead of launching a swift invasion of Ukraine, overthrowing the junta, and restoring democratic government, Putin chose to do as little as possible. It turned out that overt intervention by the Russian armed forces was unnecessary; instead, it sufficed to allow some volunteers to go and help their Russian compatriots in Donbass defend themselves, and to provide some minimal humanitarian and military supplies.

    Given the immense amounts of military equipment – most of it utterly lethal – that the USA and the UK sell to dozens of the vilest and least legitimate regimes on Earth, surely you are not arguing that the Russians had no right to supply weapons and ammunition – and even training – their compatriots in Donbass?

  • Mary

    Weidenfeld is 95, is funding the rescue of Christians from Syria (wot no Muslims?) and is acquiring rights to Philippe Sands’ book.

    ‘W&N buys title from lawyer Philippe Sands
    September 21, 2015
    Weidenfeld & Nicholson has bought a “uniquely personal exploration of the origins of international law” by international lawyer Philippe Sands.

    East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity will centre on the Nuremberg Trials.

    The book is described as “part historical detective story, part family history, part legal thriller”.

    Two interconnected stories unfold in parallel in the book.

    The first is the hidden story of two Nuremberg prosecutors who discover, only at the end of the trials, that the man they are prosecuting, once Hitler’s personal lawyer, may be responsible for the murder of their entire families in Nazi-occupied Poland, in and around the city of Lviv.

    The efforts of the two prosecutors, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, led to the inclusion of the terms ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ in the judgement at Nuremberg.

    The second strand sees Sands trace the events that overwhelmed his mother’s family in Lviv and Vienna during the Second World War, and led his grandfather to leave his wife and daughter behind as war engulfed Europe.’

  • Mary

    An international disgrace. The forgotten Palestinians.

    ‘There are currently fifty-nine Palestinian refugee camps scattered throughout the Middle East. When Zionist forces instituted a policy of ethnic cleansing aimed to dispossess the Palestinians of their land in 1947-1948, close to 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. The camps were built to house the refugees in the short term, but as the problem persisted, so did the camps. It is estimated that there are currently 2.5 million Palestinian refugees living in the camps, which are located in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.’

    September 30, 2015
    Shatila: Remembering the Massacre
    Richard Hardigan

  • Tom Welsh

    There seems to be no credible concrete evidence of any of the allegations made against President Assad. He is merely the last of a long, long, long, long list of foreign leaders whom the US government decided to “take down”, either for commercial advantage, or because they disobeyed orders from Washington, or just because the Yanks disliked the cut of their jib.

    ‘Tapping into the Central Intelligence Agency’s experience in psy-ops targeted at foreign audiences, President Ronald Reagan and CIA Director William J. Casey assembled a skilled team inside the White House led by CIA propaganda specialist Walter Raymond Jr.

    ‘From his new perch on the National Security Council staff, Raymond oversaw inter-agency task forces to sell interventionist policies in Central America and other trouble spots. The game, as Raymond explained it in numerous memos to his underlings, was to glue black hats on adversaries and white hats on allies, whatever the truth really was’.

    President Assad was duly elected, and to this day has impressive support in independently conducted polls by American and international organizations. Like Iraq under Saddam Hussen and Libya under Muamar Qadafi, Syria was a peaceful, prosperous, tolerant secular nation until it was viciously attacked by the USA and its terrorist proxies. This technique, used earlier against the Soviets in Afghanistan, pleased the Americans so much that they have taken to paying, arming and training all sorts of terrorists wherever they can find them, and aiming them at whomever the US government wishes to “take down”. Apparently they are unfamiliar with the story of the golem.

    Once hordes of savage, merciless terrorists were unleashed against Syria, the government had no choice. The only way of preventing the terrorists from overrunning the whole country and inaugurating a reign of terror was to fight them, using the full power of the armed forces. Then civilians inevitably began to die, and the US government cynically blamed the Assad government for the violence the Americans themselves had engineered. (Ironically, the US government thus adopted techniques of guerilla warfare that had been used and documented long before by such diverse agents as Mao, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara).

    I am sure that, if the terrorists who attacked Syria were unleashed in the UK or the USA, you would very quickly see the governments of those nations “killing their own people” – as the terrorists would take care to mingle with the people in such a way that they could not be attacked without civilian casualties. (Failing that, they would resort to killing civilians themselves and blaming the government forces).

  • twoleftfeet

    RoS, expect what you will but the statistics strongly suggest that Assad is the favoured option amongst Syrians trying to stay safe.
    Numerous humanitarian/refugee organisations quote the figures of 6.5 million – 7 million internally displaced (now living in Assad controlled regions) to 3 million who have fled Syria. In 2011 the Syrian population was close to 22 million.

  • Republicofscotland

    Tom Welsh 16.02.

    I couldn’t have put it better myself, I too agree it was a coup.

    But I have no sympathy for Putin or Russia. Russia under presidents of the previous century installed many puppet or Russian presidents. If memory serves me before the 1990’s I think, Poland hadn’t had a democratically elected president, youd need to go back to around 1926, to find such an occasion.

    For many years after WWII Poland was a satellite state of the Soviet Union.

  • Republicofscotland

    “RoS, expect what you will but the statistics strongly suggest that Assad is the favoured option amongst Syrians trying to stay safe.
    Numerous humanitarian/refugee organisations quote the figures of 6.5 million – 7 million internally displaced (now living in Assad controlled regions) to 3 million who have fled Syria. In 2011 the Syrian population was close to 22 million.”

    You may well be right Twoleftfeet, history however has an uncanny knack of repeating itself, just look at the fates of Saddam, and Gaddafi, both from the Assad mould,beloved leaders to some, murderous dictators to others. I’m pretty sure I know which facet the Western media are pushing.

    Lebanon’s Hezbollah backs the Assad regime, not exactly a resounding endorsement is it now. Still he must have some sway with populus, a Shia leader, ruling a mainly Sunni denizen majority.

    Im not privy to on the ground info on who supports, whom and what, in Syria, but I will be surprised if the Assad regime survives long term.

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