UK Bombing Syria: is it legal?


20 November 2015


Is it legal for the British to bomb Syria? Before Prime Minister Cameron can recommend to Parliament that the RAF starts to do just that he needs the assurance from his Attorney General, the government’s lawyer, that it is legal to do so.

You have reasonable grounds for bombing if another country is bombing you; if another country is threatened and asks you for help; if another country or an element in that country are ruled to threaten you and importunately, the UN Security Council unanimously approves of bombing.

Seems straightforward.  It is not.

For example, Russia has been asked by Syria to bomb anti-government rebels. But that rebellion could grow so large that it represents the true hopes of the majority of Syrians. At that point it is argued that Russia was only maintaining a dictatorship.

Therefore it would appear that Britain could join in the bombing to help the majority voice.  Not necessarily. Assad’s government was elected. He is the legitimate authority.  Bombing that authority is an act of declaration of war and any country that does (including the UK) is subject to all the rules of conflict and warfare – including the examination that an act of bombing may constitute a war crime.

Moreover, the mixed nature of the rebellion does not guarantee there would not be retribution and revenge politics on a grand and bloody scale if successful.  Then a coalition bombing falls below the ambitions of the UN definitions and so even now the international legality of Russian action could be challenged.  That is a ludicrous notion in practice but a reasonable one in theory.

Syria’s position is complex especially as it suffers another condition of warfare.  Because it is attacked by Sunni rebels and especially ISIS with its headquarters in Syria (Raqqa) it is reasonable to bomb those ISIS position in order to defend Assad in power.  Russia could and does argue that position.  Britain would be attack ISIS positions but not in defence of Assad.  The UK would in effect be attacking its enemy ISIS and at the same time attacking Assad’s positions.  The Attorney would have a hard one explaining that one.

The next legal angle is even more arcane. A member state of the UN has an obligation to make sure that no group on its territory threatens the people or territory of another country.  The UK and others say that ISIS, having moved its operations into Europe, does exactly that. Here could be the Attorney’s trump card but that too can be challenged. Because if Syria is unable to attack ISIS (or does not wish to) that is not grounds enough for the British or anyone else to bomb Syria.

There are many codicils to the rarely tested legality of bombing and even a claim that ISIS might attack the UK at any moment is not enough to guarantee that PM Cameron will not be challenged when he goes to the Commons.

The safest authority is of course a UN Resolution. But Russia is likely to veto that and Mr Cameron has already said that he does not need the authority of the UN to do what he thinks is obvious.  We have been here before.





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