International Law

New Database of States’ Approaches to Use of Force Concerning Syria

By Dustin Lewis, Jillian Ventura
Wednesday, May 24, 2017, 12:14 PM

Under what conditions may a state lawfully intervene—or otherwise act—in relation to armed conflict in Syria? In support of or against whom? In this context, how do states frame their approaches to acting (or not acting)? What legal arguments (if any) are embedded in those statements? Do those arguments comport with or contravene—or even seek to modify—existing international law? On which of the underlying legal issues do states agree or disagree? And what implications might those arguments entail for other conflicts?

The general parameters of the international-legal framework governing use of force are likely well-known to Lawfare readers. The thumbnail version is that under international law the threat or use of force in international relations is prohibited, with two generally-recognized exceptions: first, individual or collective self-defense conforming to the jus ad bellum principles of necessity and proportionality; and, second, a sufficient authorization by the U.N. Security Council. Yet, in certain key respects, the exact contours of those exceptions are contested—indeed, sometimes highly contested. A prominent example concerns the so-called “unwilling or unable” approach to the “necessity” prong of the self-defense analysis. Even more disputed are purported legal arguments—which are supported formally by very few states—rooted in the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Meanwhile, where a state validly consents to the presence of a third state on its territory, no use-of-force concern arises under international law.

With respect to Syria, these questions have emerged numerous times since protests in Daraa escalated into armed conflict. Especially since mid-2014, a growing number of states have undertaken military operations directed against ISIS in Syria. For at least a year-and-a-half, Russia has bolstered campaigns of the Syrian military. The United States recently directed an operation against a Syrian military base. And, more broadly, many states provide (other) forms of support or assistance to the government of Syria, to armed opposition groups, or to the civilian population.

Over the years, Lawfare authors have addressed many of these issues. In addition, Chachko and Deeks published a collection of government statements regarding the contested “unwilling or unable” test—not only as it might pertain to Syria but to other situations as well.

Despite these and other important contributions, much of the debate in the U.S. has continued to rely largely on English-language sources and a relatively narrow set of states’ approaches. At the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (HLS PILAC), we thought that a comparatively broader set of reliable resources regarding states’ perspectives could help provide legal practitioners with more information, facts, and context against which to assess arguments. As part of a team of researchers at HLS PILAC, we helped to collect states’ statements on these issues. The result is a new online database: the “HLS PILAC Database of States’ Statements (August 2011–November 2016) concerning Use of Force in relation to Syria.” (The short title is much less of a mouthful: the “Database of States’ Statements concerning Syria” (DSSS).)

 The database—which is available as a PDF, as an Excel spreadsheet, and as a Google spreadsheet—encompasses nearly 200 statements by states (including by state officials). It includes statements made in English but also translations of statements originally made in Dutch, French, German, Norwegian, Russian, and Spanish. It excerpts around a dozen “Article 51 Letters” (documents submitted by U.N. member states to the Security Council reporting measures taken in the exercise of the right of self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter). And it provides permanent web links should any original-source links rot. Not every statement in the database is necessarily legally salient for purposes of international law. But many, and perhaps most, are. Primarily due to resource and time constraints, the database somewhat arbitrarily includes only those statements made from August 2011 through November 2016. If resources allow and there is sufficient interest, a future version of the database might expand the temporal scope and include statements originally made in additional languages, such as Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, and Turkish.  

There is unfortunately no shortage of imperative matters of international concern arising in relation to Syria. We hope that the database helps to shed more light on one set of those issues: states’ perspectives on acting (or not) in relation to armed conflict in Syria.