Michael Schmitt and Christopher Ford unpack the Trump Administration’s legal justifications for the April 2017 United States attack on a Syrian airfield in response to its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Schmitt and Ford discuss three possible legal bases for the use of force: self-defense, response to an internationally wrongful act, and humanitarian intervention. The authors conclude that the US’s actions run afoul of limitations in each relevant body of law, and of note, they discuss how this attack is consequential for the validity of humanitarian intervention on another state’s territory without approval from the UN Security Council. They conclude by suggesting that the international community is likely to consider the nature of suffering, in addition to the quantum of suffering, as bearing on the right of States to mount future humanitarian operations.
Schmitt and Widmar explore the law of targeting within international humanitarian law (IHL) and its application to international and non-international armed conflict. The article examines the “five elements” of a target operation, including the target, the weapon used, the execution of the attack, possible collateral damage and incidental injury, and location of the strike. The authors suggest that a better understanding of these norms can help international lawyers, policymakers, and operators avoid violations of international law by creating appropriate and well-known boundaries for targeting operations.
The provision of lethal aid to the Syrian rebels appears questionable from a purely legal perspective. It would arguably amount to a use of force. Neither of the traditional legal justifications for the use of force—self-defense and authorization by the Security Council—applies in this case. While humanitarian intervention arguably offers a (weak) basis for the use of force, states would be wise to hesitate before embracing a liberal right to humanitarian intervention, because such operations can serve as convenient subterfuges for armed intervention.