The United States has submitted its international legal justification for its strikes on Syria to the other 14 members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). According to Bloomberg News, the US is claiming that it’s carrying out airstrikes out of legitimate self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
In a letter to the other Council members this morning, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power wrote that the Syrian government no longer had the ability to fight jihadist groups operating within its borders — and that those groups posed an active threat to US security.
“‘States must be able to defend themselves’ when ‘the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks'” the letter states, according to the Bloomberg report. Power claimed that US actions against the Khorasan Group, a collection of high-level Al Qaeda commanders that are using Syrian territory to plot attacks on western targets, were initiated in order “to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.”
The attacks on ISIS in Syria stand on questionable domestic legal ground. The administration is claiming that it can attack groups in Syria under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which allows the president to initiate military action against “nations, organisations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 … in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organisations or persons.” ISIS is an Al Qaeda offshoot that was cast out of the organisation in February. Jabhat Al Nusra and Khorasan are Al Qaeda affiliates and consist of high-ranking Al Qaeda members, did these groups not exist on September 11th, 2001.
In terms of international law, a state is allowed to wage war outside of its territory if it’s been invited by a recognised foreign government — as happened during the 2012 French intervention in Mali, when the government in Bamako requested French assistance in stemming a jihadist advance through the country.
However, a state can also wage war if there’s explicit authorization from the Security Council, which is theoretically the arbiter of all armed conflict on earth. The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, which was permitted under Security Council Resolution 1973, falls into that category.
Syria hasn’t definitively invited the US to strike within its territory — even if several governments have withdrawn their recognition for an Assad regime that hasn’t exerted any meaningful control over much of its country for months. And the US didn’t obtain a UNSC resolution that allows it to strike inside the country.
Because of this, Power is appealing to the third legitimate use of force under international law: Article 51 of the UN charter, which states that “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” Iraq and Syria are UN member states that have been the target of jihadist groups in Syria. Coalition actions could easily count as collective self-defence, especially since regional neighbours like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar and involved.
The fact that Power submitted the letter — and not the Arab members of the coalition working alongside the US on the military operations in Syria — is in keeping with the administration’s overall public and legal justification for action in Syria. The administration is staking the legality of its actions on the assertion that ISIS and Al Qaeda operatives in the country pose an active threat to the US homeland and to US assets abroad.
Business Insider has reached out to the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council for comment and has not received any responses. We will update this post as we receive responses.
Additional reporting by Hunter Walker.
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