As we write, news reports suggest that Turkey has sent or is on the verge of sending military forces into Syria without the consent of the Syrian government.
How, if at all, can these military operations be justified under international law?
Turkey has claimed in the past that Kurdish militia forces in Syria have attacked or threaten to attack Turkey. If it makes that claim now, Turkey will in effect be arguing that it is taking military action in self-defense as permitted by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.
Article 51, however, establishes the requirement that any such action undertaken in self-defense be immediately reported to the Security Council.
Further, the traditional requirements of necessity and proportionality must be met, as Article 51 sanctions military action in self-defense only in the case of an “armed attack” against the state exercising that right.
Here, there is no armed attack by Kurdish forces against Turkey. Consequently, there is no “necessity” to bring an armed attack to a halt. Nor could Turkish military operations in Syria be “proportional” to an attack which has not occurred.
Worth mentioning is the fact that the United States has had military forces in Syria without setting forth any legal justification for such action under international law. The U.S. might have made a case centered on fighting ISIS or even al-Assad for the Syrian government’s commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but it didn’t.
Absent a legal justification from Turkey for its military operations in Syria, one can only conclude that the latter is undertaken in violation of Article 2 paragraph 4 of the U.N. Charter, which prohibits the use of force across international frontiers.
With so many countries ignoring international law, one might ask, “What difference does it make?”
The answer in that international order is inconceivable without international law, and if we want to halt the present slide into anarchy, we need to start here and now. We need to reassert the importance and relevance of international law governing the use of force. We need to demand that it be followed—whenever and wherever we can.
For when a legal norm is violated, what is most important is the reassertion of the norm and its validity, and its authority, not only before but also after it has been violated.
The Trenchant Observer