Opinion - Airstrikes on Syria: our experts answer key questions about the military action

Posted on: 3 May 2018 by Politics dept in 2018 posts

Map showing military action in Syria

In the early hours of 14 April 2018, the militaries of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom launched airstrikes against regime targets in Syria. This came as retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on civilians in the opposition-controlled enclave of Douma a week earlier.

The military action raised pressing questions about the legality, justification, humanitarian motivations, as well as the role of foreign powers and the effect on Syria’s civil war.

Reacting to and dissecting current affairs happening around the world, is a key part of the politics department here at Liverpool.

We brought together a group of experts on international relations to discuss these questions during a Q&A session with students. Here are some of their findings.

Was the bombing campaign legal under international law?

The debate over legality reflects a tension between alternative sources of international law - custom versus treaty. The British government argues that the airstrikes were legal according to international customary law. They argue that past state practice suggests an international obligation to use force to alleviate human suffering. They had to act against the Syrian government to protect the Syrian population. This is controversial because it conflicts with another source of international law: treaties. Opponents of the airstrikes point to the UN Charter, arguing the airstrikes were illegal because they were not authorized by the UN Security Council or in self-defence. Dr Theresa Squatrito

Was the military action a humanitarian intervention?

‘Humanitarian intervention’ (HI) is the military intervention of third-states in the domestic affairs of another state to end mass atrocities or mass human rights violations. The Syrian bombings of April 2018 cannot be classed as a HI because the principal professed aim was to deter Syria from using chemical weapons again, not to protect civilian lives. On the contrary, the bombings may have endangered civilian lives directly through the use of missiles, and indirectly by making it less likely that the Syrian regime will permit Western humanitarian aid agencies to access civilians. They were isolated events with little effect and not connected to a larger political plan for Syria. Dr Birte Gippert

Could the bombing be described as a 'just war'?

Under ‘just war theory’, the recent missile strikes in Syria must have a ‘just cause’ in order to be morally justified. The British government argued its just cause was to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again. This justification is contingent on how reasonable it is to expect the Assad regime to be deterred. The apparent failure of U.S. missile strikes to do so in April 2017, and the British government’s parallel expectation that the war in Syria will carry on much the same raises serious doubts about the efficacy and thus the morality of the missile strikes. Dr Nick Martin

What is Russia’s role in the conflict?

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in 2015 came as an unexpected move for many international observers and was initially designed as a small-scale and short-term engagement in the crisis which would boost Russia’s reputation at home and abroad. It has undoubtedly made Russia one of the key players in the conflict and gained Russia a seat at the table in terms of discussions at the UN and elsewhere about how to resolve the war. Russia’s support has also ensured that Assad’s regime is now entrenched and it has sought, with some success, to build alliances with other regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Israel. However, Russia has been drawn into a messy, multiparty conflict which has become far more drawn-out, expensive and risky than initially intended. Dr Eleanor Bindman 

What are the prospects for Syrian reconstruction?

The political and military outcome of war shapes reconstruction. Syria faces a dilemma. The likely military winners of the war have neither the funds nor the capacity to reconstruct: The Assad regime, Iran and Russia. Those with funds have lost the war and may refuse to invest on Assad’s terms: Turkey, Gulf countries, Europe, and the United States. All these actors have a history of prioritising their political and economic self-interest – think of the US in Iraq, Gulf investors in Lebanon, or Assad’s well-documented cronyism. Without a meaningful role for Syrian civil society, reconstruction will bring neither growth nor equity. Dr Hannes Baumann

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