The escalating death toll in Syria, which exceeds 60,000, has increased pressure on President Obama to do more to help the Syrian opposition. But traditional legal rules that protect international peace and security constrain the president's options. Although the administration recognized the Syrian Opposition Council last month as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people," that announcement created no new legal basis for Washington to give weapons to Syrian rebels or to intervene with military force against theAssad government. If Bashar al-Assad's atrocities continue, Obama will find it difficult to provide more U.S. assistance consistent with international law.
The U.N. Charter prohibits member states from using force against or intervening in the internal affairs of other states unless authorized by the U.N. Security Council or justified by self-defense. These rules make it unlawful for any country to use direct military force against the Assad regime, including establishing "no-fly zones" or providing arms to the Syrian opposition without Security Council approval. Russia and China, of course, have continued to block such approval.