International Law

The Downsides of Bombing Syria

By Jack Goldsmith, Oona Hathaway
Tuesday, April 10, 2018, 2:59 PM

The U.S. government seems on a set path toward intervening in Syria with military force (probably air strikes of some sort) in response to the recent a chemical weapons attack allegedly sponsored by the Syrian government. We think a few brief points are worth keeping in mind.

1. A unilateral use of force here by the president, without congressional authorization, would be premised on an astonishingly broad conception of the president’s Article II powers. The domestic legal rationale for any strike would almost certainly be grounded in the same rationale on which the Obama administration relied for its asserted authority to strike in Syria in 2013, and on which the Trump administration relied on for its similar strike last year: that Article II authorizes the president to use military force short of ground troops to uphold regional stability and important international norms when he finds that doing so is in the national interest. As one of us (Goldsmith) said of this theory when Barack Obama was considering it in 2013:

Its main problem is that it places no limit at all on the president’s ability to use significant military force unilaterally. Future presidents will easily be able to invoke regional stability and the need to protect important international norms whenever they want to intervene abroad with strikes like the one expected against Syria.

Bottom line: If you support the coming airstrike in Syria, you are supporting a rationale that allows the president to use air power unilaterally basically whenever he sees fit.

2. The coming airstrike will violate international law. The United Nations Charter prohibits “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” This most important of international laws has three exceptions, none of which are implicated here: First, Syria has not consented to the strikes; second, the U.N. Security Council has not authorized the strikes; and third, the United States is not acting in self-defense.

Some will describe the U.S. and allied intervention as a fulfillment of the “responsibility to protect.” As one of us (Hathaway) explained in similar circumstances in 2013, that doctrine was not crafted as an exception to the demands of the U.N. Charter, and it expressly permits intervention only in accordance with the U.N. Charter rules described above.

3. It is far from clear that an airstrike intervention will improve the situation on the ground for Syrian civilians. Past U.S. actions have provoked reactions from supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the threatened intervention likely will as well. Every time the U.S. has stepped up its activities in Syria, other countries—particularly Russia and Iran—have blunted the impact by increasing their support for Assad. This dynamic of punch-counterpunch is precisely why civil wars with foreign sponsors are longer and more brutal.

4. Unless we are willing to stay and help rebuild, there is no guarantee that life will be better for the Syrian people even if we succeed in ridding Syria of Assad. Bombs from above have the power to destroy, but not to rebuild. The most recent such humanitarian intervention—the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 in which the U.S. participated—has not achieved what many hoped. After NATO intervened, local forces killed the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, and his government fell to pieces. The result was chaos and disorder. Even though the action was Security Council-approved, there was little international appetite to help rebuild the country. Post-Gaddafi Libya remains torn by civil war and has become a breeding ground for the Islamic State.

5. Lastly, and perhaps most dangerously, the coming airstrikes raise the foreseeable possibility of sparking a much larger and more dangerous conflict with Russia or Iran or both. Indeed, in February, a U.S. strike killed a number of “Russian mercenaries” in Syria. Russia did little in response, but there’s no guarantee that it would similarly remain quiet if there is a repeat performance—or if strikes hit the Russian military forces working closely with Assad and his military.

What’s more, a recent Israeli strike in Syria reportedly killed four Iranian military personnel. Stepped-up strikes by the United States on Syrian government targets hold out the serious possibility of doing the same. So striking Syria could bring the U.S. to war with not one, but possibly three, foreign states: Syria, Russia and Iran. Before the president of the United States acts in ways that might provoke this larger conflict, he should inform the American people of his plans and garner congressional consent.

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Many people have understandably reacted to the horrific pictures of the chemical weapons attack with the impulse: We must do something. But the dangers posed by such intervention are immense, and the prospect that such airstrikes would bring real improvements on the ground are not supported by historical experience. Perhaps there is a justification for a larger military push now in Syria; perhaps the United States must eventually confront Russia over the fate of Assad. But given the enormous stakes, that is not a decision that the president alone should be making for the United States, or that the United States and a few allies should be making for the world.

Editor’s note: This piece was cross-posted at Just Security.