As Syria slides further into a full-fledged civil war and the violence throughout the country continues to escalate, pressure for intervention is mounting. The international community’s immediate priority should be to stop the bloodshed. What needs to be considered is whether such measures can be achieved within the legal normative framework supplied by the United Nations Charter, given the current political backdrop.
Although the Security Council may authorize (non-)military enforcement measures under Chapter VII, all enforcement measures taken thus far have been fruitless. Diplomacy is obviously not working. The Six Point Plan from Kofi Annan which garnered full Security Council member support for a cease-fire, along with the subsequent Council resolutions adopted to implement the Plan, practically came to an end overnight after the Houla massacre.
Syrian sanctions have not been working either. The Arab League, US and EU have imposed sanctions against the purchase of Syrian oil, technologies and strategic goods that can be utilized by the government to suppress Syrians, and have added Syrian officials on their sanctions list, i.e. freezing assets and imposing travel bans. Not only have these measures failed to change al-Assad’s behavior, but they might have even negatively affected the living conditions of Syrian citizens, due to the price rise of certain necessary commodities.
As for military measures, given that Russia vetoed a resolution on Syria in February that did not authorize a Libya-style intervention or even threaten an arms embargo and sanctions, I am of the opinion that a compromise acceptable to Russia is unlikely to be reached in the immediate future. This removes the option of taking UN Security Council-sanctioned military enforcement measures, such as the Responsibility to Protect, from the table.
In the absence of an explicit Security Council resolution, the only other exemption to Article 2(4)’s prohibition on the use of force is when a state invokes its right to self-defense after having suffered an armed attack – limited to acts necessary and proportionate. Turkey asserted that it may consider invoking Art. 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, i.e. the collective security clause, after a cross-border shooting by Syrian security forces killed two Turkish officials and left three injured. But it did not. Any attempt to justify the use of force against Syria in response to the shootings as self-defense, with the amount of time that has elapsed, would lack credibility. It is also clear that any use of force by Turkey, or by its allies in NATO will not be proportionate to the degree of force employed by Syria in this particular incident. Furthermore, the use of force by Turkey must only be directed to restore the status quo ante, that is, limited to restoring security along the Syrian border.
It seems that there are no viable legal options. Having ruled out collective intervention and self defense, states or NATO could justify their actions when unilaterally intervening without Security Council authorization by pointing at numerous contextual considerations. Although a claim to legality will not be possible, a claim to legitimacy could definitely be made – a position which NATO held when describing its action over Kosovo. Given the current paralysis of the Security Council, the intervening states or NATO must present a clear message that they are discharging their responsibilities by attempting to put an end to the violence. The burden is on them to persuade other governments that their actions are legitimate and will be tolerated among most UN members.
In conclusion, there are four arguments that might warrant legitimate armed intervention in Syria. First, that Assad continues to commit widespread, systematic and gross human rights violations against its civilians, and that there is grave concern over the plight of refugees in neighboring countries, i.e. there is an existence of a real humanitarian emergency. Second, that peace and security in the region is further threatened by the risk that the conflict will spillover into other countries such as Lebanon and Iraq. Third, that all peaceful remedies have been exhausted, diplomacy and sanctions have not worked, and the only means to prevent further human misery is military intervention. And fourth, that the General Assembly and Arab League have condemned the violations of human rights by Syrian authorities, demanding that the Syrian government put an end to the violence.
Ramin Daniel Rezai is an editor of atlantic-community.org.