Airstrikes in Syria: Legitimacy of Regional Coalitions


At first glance, the U.S.-led coalition’s airstrikes against ISIS in Syria seems to fly in the face of international law and undermine state sovereignty norms. However, the inclusion of many regional Middle Eastern countries help cache the justification in terms of the operation’s necessity for the sake of regional stability. This coalition’s legitimization strategy reflects a larger effort to reinterpret state sovereignty norms in a way that allows for the use of force under regional interventions.

This may appear to be a gross violation of the U.N. Charter, which forbids the use of force outside of a very few exceptions. One exception under which the U.N. Security Council can authorize the use of force is in response to threats to international peace and security. In practice, the United Nations permits intervention when the five Great Powers of the Security Council can agree that concerns for international stability dictate an intervention. However, the U.N. system has come under substantial criticism for being a political tool; the U.S., Great Britain, France, China and Russia have competing political interests. Moreover, while tasked with maintaining international stability, the Great Powers are willing to jeopardize the regional stability of the regions that fall outside of the Great Power’s core spheres of influence; namely the Middle East and Africa. (The United States’ considers South American affairs under their primary sphere of influence.) As such, the current system of U.N. Security Council authorization underserves or even undermines regional stability in certain parts of the world. Within this context, the reliance of the support of regional coalitions suggests a bypass method under which regional powers can legitimately maintain regional stability through use of force that the larger powers are unwilling to provide. A move away from the idealistic jargon of the U.N. Charter towards embracing the institutional political realities and the pragmatic interests in regional stability would mark a significant shift in the normative landscape on international legitimacy.

Intervention in Syria: Changing Norms?

When the United States threatened to attack ISIS bases located within Syria’s sovereign territory, the Assad government denounced the speech, reiterating its government’s right to unimpeded sovereign rules over its territorial boundaries. Russia and China, who favor a strict interpretation of state sovereignty as a means of promoting international stability, were quick to reinforce the Syrian position: barring a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, foreign intervention violated international law.

The U.S., as other great powers in the international system, has considerable incentives to maintain the state sovereignty norm. In order for them to move forward in Syria, they needed to establish that either 1) the intervention does not actually contradict state sovereignty norms OR 2) the intervention is necessary for international stability. Since sovereignty’s normative purpose is to maintain international stability, if the United States successfully establishes that the military operation promotes regional stability, it will offset the negative repercussions of violating the international norm.

By undertaking a joint effort with  Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (and Qatari air support), the U.S. is trying to demonstrate that regional powers (and their accompanying interests) demand the use of force for the sake of the region as a whole. After all (as the logic goes), if a coalition of regional powers support an operation, then that operation must be for the greater good of the region’s stability. If the operation is seen as a stability-enhancing exercise, then the intervention does not contravene the greater purpose of the sovereignty norms. Therefore, while it ignores established norms on Security Council as the sole legitimate authority on the use of force, it does not set a general precedent for disregarding state sovereignty.

Shifting (But Not Diminishing) Sovereignty Norms

Moreover, despite the U.S.’s harsh rhetoric of not assisting the Assad-regime, they have avoided targeting any government-held positions. Since airstrikes have only struck territory controlled by the ISIS quasi-state or other radical groups, the airstrikes do not violate Assad’s truly sovereign territory. The international community tends to take a pragmatic perspective on the limits of sovereign borders, and de facto states have been able to establish some modicum of legitimacy simply on the basis of providing government services and adequate stability. Under this view, since Assad has lost all meaningful control over ISIS controlled territory, while it is his territory to win back, Syria does not enjoy the same sovereign rights over ISIS-controlled Syria as it does over the rest of the traditional Syrian state.

This interpretation is further bolstered by the fact that Assad has expressed support for ‘‘any international anti-terrorism effort,” referring to the airstrikes against ISIS. Syria’s formal support implies complicit authorization of the regional airstrikes, an authorization that would sidestep the concerns over sovereignty. Moreover, evidence suggests that the United States has coordinated its efforts by informing Iran (and therefore Syria) of its intention to conduct airstrikes as well an assurance that the planes would not target Assad’s assets.

As such, beneath the political rhetoric, the United States fulfills both conditions for using force in Syria: they establish that the airstrikes align with regional stability interests and avoid a direct violation of sovereignty norms.

However, rhetoric still matters. Technically, this ‘regional coalition’ argument is not supported by current international law, which as Russia and China point out, requires Security Council authorization. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., however, argues that this falls under Article 51, the self-defense clause. According to Powers, “The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe havens effectively itself,” thus allowing the coalition forces to fill that void. This novel interpretation reflects the mutability of international law. The lack of international condemnation of the use of regional strike forces opens the door for similar, future operations. If state actors continue to use this “regional coalition” avenue as a means for international legitimization, then we may be seeing the development of a mechanism for the circumvention of the United Nations and the increasingly gridlocked international institutions.

An outside option for the legitimate use of force would further degrade the strength of the United Nations as an institution, rendering it increasingly inconsequential and heralding a shift for rethinking international norms governing the legitimacy of the use of force.


About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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