President Donald Trump took the toughest direct US action in Syria’s six-year-old civil war on April 7. He ordered 59 missile strikes against a Syrian airfield controlled by President Assad’s forces in response to the deadly poison gas attack on Syrian people in America’s ‘national security interest’. The action could potentially raise the risk of a confrontation with Russia and Iran, Assad’s main military backers.
While ordering missile strikes, President Trump did not appear insecure. He rather confidently declared, “Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically”. When Russia warned, the attack is “one step from war” over Syria – the Trump’s administration hit back, saying they would be prepared to carry out another airstrike. The US could no longer “turn away, turn a blind eye.”
This level of the US resolve is frightening. If Trump intended to send a message to North Korea, Iran and other potential adversaries that he was prepared to act, sometimes on short notice, without caring about UN mandate, the timing could not have been better. The fact that the Chinese leader didn’t walk out from the dinner showed that “China puts getting on with Trump first even when it doesn’t like what he does”.
Some analysts like Mark Almond, Professor of Modern History (New York Times) rightly conclude that Trump wants the US to reshape the world in its own interests, according to its values, using its immense power. The message seems to be either “get on one side or take the consequences.” If true, more tension and more trouble is ahead for the world.
The immense worry here is the legality of unilateral action against a sovereign state, in violation of international law and how such a practice can come to be regarded as an acceptable norm. How would majority of the sovereign states gradually accept the world where one single state can assume authority without fiat from UN to take n action to punish a state it dislikes?
The airstrikes betray imperialistic streaks in its worst form. Even, The Guardian (April 9) could not resist emphasizing, “the omission is the blatant illegality of the US missile strikes, done neither in self-defense, nor with UN authority”. Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons “can’t justify such a breach of international law”.
The defiance of collective UN leadership was seen in display more forcefully at the US Arab Summit at Riyadh (April 29) where in the name of rooting out terrorism, war was declared against Iran. It was not a ‘battle between good and evil’ but geopolitics in full swing.
In my view, the highly disturbing aspect of the matter is the weakening voices against such unilateral actions. Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Turkey, Italy, Poland, Saudi Arabia and Japan backed the US missile strikes. Regretfully, major countries like China and India refrained from questioning the legality of US unilateral actions. Only countries like Iran, Belarus, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela criticized the missile strikes, with Bolivia describing the action as a violation of international law and relating the current US Security to 2003 situation arising from hiding of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Pakistan which has complained against drone attacks and in 2003 was threatened of push to stone age civilization did not make the right kind of noises.
During his first trip abroad, Trump showed that true to his words, he was interested in deals only. He would not be afraid to use force as a bargaining chip. In this games, he would care about China and Russia only. If they wouldn’t like his games, they would be offered something for letting him settle with regimes he really wants to sort out. He would not be bothered whether his friends subscribed to democracy or respected the rule of law or protected human rights.
Scholars of international relations and law must ask who outside the UN system should or has the authority to invade a sovereign territory? The British historian Niall Ferguson once commented. People in the United States ‘‘think they’re so different that when they have (military) bases in foreign territories, it’s not an empire. David A Lake recently raised some pertinent questions; how can international institutions be developed to credibly commit the dominant state not to exercise its power or to turn its power into legitimate international authority? How will other countries react to this authority’s claims? These are the real questions at the heart of the recent conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Yemen or drone attacks in Pakistan or elsewhere.
Unilateral actions by a powerful state/s against a sovereign state are dangerous and divisive; weakening, instead of consolidating the UN system. Sovereignty implies a relationship of formal equality. As Kenneth Waltz (1979) describes it, between sovereign states ‘‘none is entitled to command; none is required to obey.’’
The US has been conducting airstrikes in Syria for months now. The Security Council has never specifically authorized the US to engage in extraterritorial attacks within Syria. Many American argue that the Security Council has not condemned the US for strikes in Syria. Its silence can be taken as approval of US actions taken in Syria. They intentionally ignore that Article 2(7) of the UN Charter prohibits any intervention in the political regime of a sovereign state.
The US takes the continued applicability of resolutions 1368 and 1373, as well as repeated confirmation by the Security Council of the applicability of international humanitarian law and the need to “combat ISIL”, “by all means necessary,” as general authorization for its operations in Syria.
With more reliance on power than legality enshrined in the UN system, small countries not on the right side of major world powers remain increasingly exposed to indiscriminate coercion, political bullying, airstrikes, drones and military led interventions etc. These actions on the pretext of eliminating terrorists, promotion of human rights or even as outright interventions will be carried out with or without “invitation doctrine”. The continued global silence over the current illegality of unilateral actions by US, if not promptly reversed, will further erode the already depleted UN credibility. There will be more chaos and anarchy in the world. Even established states will politically suffer.