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Legitimacy of Intervention in Syria: Three Things to Know

Speaker: Matthew C. Waxman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Law and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
August 29, 2013

The United States has been considering military strikes against Syrian government targets in response to what it says is strong evidence that the regime used chemical weapons. However, such strikes will face tough questions about their legality, says CFR's Matthew Waxman. He offers three things to know about how international law applies to this situation.

Legal Grounds: Without a UN Security Council resolution authorizing "universally agreed-upon" force, or a claim of self-defense, a state would not have the legal grounds necessary to intervene in Syria, says Waxman. The United States and its partners do not have a resolution or a strong self-defense argument, according to Waxman. Although the United States could make an argument that chemical weapons pose a threat to the region, "they're really defending the Syrian people in an internal civil war," he says.

Precedent: Despite treaties outlawing chemical weapons use, there is no precedent for using military intervention as a response to violations, Waxman argues. Although the United States and its allies have a strong interest in deterring the use of chemical weapons, any military intervention would "really be stretching existing law," says Waxman.

Extraordinary Circumstances: If there is no legal basis for military intervention in Syria, any use of external force on Syrian government targets could be justified "as necessary to avert a humanitarian catastrophe," Waxman says. States are more accepting of intervention in extreme circumstances and when all diplomatic options have been exhausted, he argues.


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