Is Turkey’s military operation in Syria justified under international law?

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

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.