International Law Ignored as US-led Strikes Kill Syrian Civilians
September 30, 2014
Al Jazeera America & Michael Pizzi / Al Jazeera America
US-led airstrikes hit grain silos and other targets in Islamic State in Iraq territory in northern and eastern Syria, killing civilians and wounding insurgents. The aircraft may have mistaken civilian mills and grain storage areas for an ISIL base. The US military said its strikes were part of President Obama’s "comprehensive strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL." Meanwhile, legal scholars examine whether Washington's argument that Damascus is 'unwilling or unable' to fight ISIL justifies US airstrikes.
US-led Strikes Across Syria Kill Civilians, Group Says
Al Jazeera America
DAMASCUS (September 29, 2014) -- US-led airstrikes hit grain silos and other targets in Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-controlled territory in northern and eastern Syria overnight, killing civilians and wounding insurgents, a group monitoring the war said on Monday.
The aircraft may have mistaken the mills and grain storage areas in the northern Syrian town of Manbij for an ISIL base, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The US military said its strikes were part of President Barack Obama’s "comprehensive strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL."
"Although we continue to assess the outcome of these attacks, initial indications are that they were successful," read a statement from US Central Command (CENTCOM), which is coordinating the air campaign.
CENTCOM added that the grain silo it struck was in the hands of ISIL, the violent Al-Qaeda splinter group that swept through Iraq and Syria this summer.
"The storage facility was being used by ISIL as a logistics hub and vehicle staging facility," CENTCOM said.
However, the bombing in Manbij appeared to have killed only civilians, not fighters, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, which gathers information from sources in Syria.
"These were the workers at the silos. They provide food for the people," he said. He could not give a number of casualties and it was not immediately possible to verify the information.
The United States has targeted ISIL and other fighters in Syria since last week with the help of Arab allies, and has hit ISIL in Iraq since last month. Washington says it aims to damage and destroy the bases, forces and supply lines of the violent armed group that has captured large areas of both countries.
Manbij, the target site, sits between the western city of Aleppo and the northern town of Kobane, which ISIL has been trying to capture from Kurdish forces, forcing tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to flee over the border to Turkey.
The CENTCOM statement also listed other strikes in the region, including what it said were ISIL assets in Deir al-Zour, Aleppo and Raqqa, the heart of ISIL-held territory.
Bombs also hit ISIL vehicles near Kirkuk, a contested city near the Kurdish region of Iraq, and Sinjar, just west of Kirkuk, where thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority, sought refuge from the ISIL onslaught in August.
Participating with the US in the attacks were the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
'We Are Satisfied'
Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Moallem on Monday said Damascus was satisfied with the US-led bombing campaign against ISIL, adding that the airstrikes should be expanded to include all other rebel groups in Syria.
Rebel groups unaffiliated with ISIL, meanwhile, have criticized the US for not targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime, which they seek to overthrow. The White House maintains, as it has since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011, that it hopes Assad will leave power, but has not effectively backed any anti-government group.
American diplomats have denied that they are working in concert with the regime — sometimes informing Syrian officials that the raids would take place, but not asking for permission to strike.
Al-Moallem said the US does not inform Syria of every strike before it happens, "but it's OK."
"We are fighting ISIS, they are fighting ISIS," he said, referring to the group by one of its acronyms.
"Until today, we are satisfied. As long as they are aiming at ISIS locations in Syria and in Iraq, we are satisfied," he said.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press
Despite Questions over Legality of US Strikes in Syria, World Stays Quiet
Michael Pizzi / Al Jazeera America
(September 24, 2014) -- For 13 years of the war on terrorism, the US took heat for bending -- some say breaking -- international law by intervening in sovereign states without the consent of their governments. So many were surprised on Tuesday that the international community hardly reprimanded Washington when it and five Arab nations launched a series of unprecedented strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets across Syria without securing the permission of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, their mutual enemy.
The US also launched unilateral strikes in Syria's north against an Al-Qaeda-linked group that Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said was nearing the "execution phase" of an attack on the West -- a reprisal of the controversial pre-emptive self-defense argument that underpinned the war on terrorism.
The muted reaction doesn't mean the world is buying the Obama administration's legal rationale for striking ISIL in Syria, an argument that is premised on the White House's refusal to partner with the Assad regime and that takes advantage of gray areas in international law.
Given the indiscriminate brutality of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and the sectarian threat it poses to regional stability, it may simply be the case that the international community is willing to turn a blind eye. Others say Washington's partnership with regional powers lends credibility to the operation.
Still, many legal scholars say the US justification for striking ISIL may be valid.
The US has already invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows for collective self-defense of a sovereign state without Security Council approval, to justify the ongoing offensive against ISIL strongholds in Iraq. Baghdad has formally requested military assistance to combat the armed group in the country's Sunni strongholds, so the legality of foreign intervention on the Iraqi side of ISIL's vast territory is clear-cut.
But any campaign against ISIL that is limited to one side of the Iraqi border would amount to a stopgap measure, since ISIL fighters can easily retreat into Syria, where the group is based, to replenish and refuel. In other words, the US argues, defending Iraq from ISIL requires expanding the offensive into Syria.
"The US claim of self-defense is parasitic upon Iraq's claim," said Jens Ohlin, a professor at the Cornell University School of Law and an expert on the legality of international military action. "Iraq has suffered attacks from ISIS [an acronym for another name for ISIL] units that have a safe haven in Syria, which is unable to stop ISIS from operating on its territory. This argument is controversial but supportable in my view."
In fact, there wouldn't even be a debate over the legality of US strikes on ISIL if the White House secured the permission of the Assad regime. But after recently announcing it would boost aid to Syria's moderate rebels and already under fire for taking too soft a line against the Assad regime over three years of bloody civil war, the White House is afraid it would paint itself as hypocritical by collaborating with Assad against a common enemy -- even for a brief time.
So the US has made the controversial argument that the Syrian government is "unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory" by ISIL as a staging ground for attacks in Iraq, according to US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.
After all, Assad has lost control of over one-third of his country to ISIL -- hence "unable" -- and there is evidence he has allowed ISIL to metastasize while focusing fire on other rebel factions because the group has spurred so much rebel infighting -- therefore "unwilling."
Furthermore, the US has designated ISIL a threat to its national security, in part because the group has beheaded two American journalists. That argument could, in theory, afford the US-led coalition the right to strike in Syria in defense of Iraq if the Assad regime isn't doing enough on its own, wrote Ryan Goodman, a professor at New York University School of Law and editor-in-chief of the Just Security blog. But it's a unique case.
"What is the international law when a host state (Syria) is willing and able to deal with a nonstate group (ISIS) through military cooperation with the threatened state (the United States) but the latter (the United States) doesn't want to associate itself with the host state for potentially unrelated reasons?" Goodman wrote.
The Assad regime's major backers -- Iran and Russia -- have cried foul, though their objection amounts to rhetorical support for Damascus since the consensus is that those two countries are happy the US is taking on a regionwide threat.
Scholars noted that Iran's and Russia's objections mean little if Damascus gave its tacit consent for foreign strikes against ISIL or the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which lost 50 fighters in the US-Arab bombardment on Tuesday.
In a statement shortly after the strikes, the Assad government said it supported "any international effort to fight against terrorism" and emphasized that it was notified of the strikes beforehand, seemingly implying that it was on board.
"Assad would be the one to assert Syrian sovereignty, not Russia or Iran," said Jennifer Trahan, an associate professor at the NYU School of Global Affairs. "If Assad isn't alleging a violation of sovereignty, it brings this closer to the framework of the US strikes in Yemen or Somalia."
Analysts say there is greater legal basis to object to the strikes on the Khorosan group, a cadre of Al-Qaeda veterans that the US struck on its own just hours before the coalition took aim at ISIL.
As the US often did to justify military action against extremist cells after the 9/11 attacks, it invoked the amorphous doctrine of pre-emptive self-defense to justify violating Syrian sovereignty in that case. Of course, what led the US to deduce that an attack on the West was imminent, as always, remains a government secret.
"If the US has previously been attacked by this group, it should say so," said Ohlin. "If the argument is that we need to stop an imminent attack from them in the future -- well again, the administration needs to provide some evidence to support this conclusion."
In that regard, the Obama administration may have slipped one under the radar by hitting the Khorosan group alongside the more internationally accepted coalition strikes against ISIL.
In fact, not even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised issue with Tuesday's strikes. In his first comments after the strikes, Ban all but endorsed the "unwilling and unable" argument made by the US, noting "that the strikes took place in areas no longer under effective control of that government."
"I think it's undeniable that these extremist groups pose an immediate threat to international peace and security," he said.
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