Yemen and Coalition-Based Interventions

In October 2014, we saw the United States lead a military intervention in sovereign Syrian territory. Despite the lack of U.N. authorization, the United States justified its forceful intervention on the grounds that the coalition of regional actors validated the violation of Syrian sovereignty. I argued that this helped contribute to an ongoing shift where the fulcrum of legitimate force is moving away from the U.N. regime and towards regional coalitions.

The United States, with its unmatched presence in the international arena, has a unique ability to define legitimate behavior (if only because no country is willing or able to stop the United States from carrying out its vision of international law). However, if the United States had enforced its vision of international law on the international community, the decision to retract its global footprint seems to have left a vacuum in its wake.[1]

As the lines defining legitimate international force have blurred between the United Nations and regional coalitions, the actual use of force, legitimate and otherwise, seems to have intensified. Non-aggression seems to be slipping away into a bygone era of Pax Americana. With the relaxed standards governing interstate military behavior, regional coalitions are becoming the authorizing mechanisms for “the maintenance of international peace and security.”


First, the ongoing dispute with Russia over sovereign Ukrainian territory serves as an example to potential aggressors that the use of interstate military force does not promise a punishing price by the international community. In Ukraine, the separatist campaign is settling into another of the several frozen conflict spotting the post-Soviet periphery, with sporadic violations indicative of the tenuous nature of the ceasefire status. The West accuses the Russians of violating Ukrainian territorial integrity by providing military aid to the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, and have been even more outspoken in condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The general perception seems to be that the United States and Europe do not have the political will to do much more than slap on sanctions and haltingly provide military aid.  Despite Congressional pressure to provide more comprehensive military support, at the time of this article, the U.S. has only provided non-lethal aid. Even the sanctions regime has come under contention among the Europeans, with some EU states pushing to drop sanctions altogether.

As such, the lack of political will to enforce current international law unfastens the bonds cementing the current perception of legitimate international behavior and opens the doors to changing perceptions of legitimate force and even the organizing principles of the current normative regime.


The rise of the Islamic State as a non-sovereign player on the international stage has further undermined normative tradition. World leaders do not recognize the Islamic State as a legitimate entity, yet are forced to cope with its existence as a practical reality. According to international law, the Islamic State should not be, yet it is. Every day that the international coalition combats the quasi-governing militants without forcing a decisive victory is another blow against the sovereign norm, and establishes greater legitimacy for coalition-based interventions. Moreover, the fact that the nominally sovereign player (Syria) does not factor into the ‘legitimate’ fight against the Islamic State further undercuts the notion of sovereign integrity, and opens the door to coalition-based interventions.

The coalition dynamic manifests itself differently in the two primary countries where the Islamic State is active, Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the internationally recognized government in Baghdad can hardly keep itself afloat, and the international forces have heavily relied on troops from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a sovereign state in all but name operating within Iraqi territory. Another key player in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq are local militias, unaffiliated with the government in Baghdad and organized among sectarian lines.

In Syria, the situation (from a normative perspective) is even more complicated. The Islamic State may be violating sovereign Syrian territory, but if the United States has their way, then there will be no legitimate sovereign entity to fall back upon. By declaring the Assad-led Syrian government illegitimate due to human rights violations within their own territory, the United States created a blank space, but they don’t like the groups filling the space. The former state of Syria has become a free-for-all war zone pitting the Islamic State against the Syrian government against other Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra. External actors have joined the fight to promote their owned interests, such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah supporting Assad troops from nearby Lebanon, and the United States taking measures to arm “moderate” rebel forces to help shape the conflict’s outcome. Amidst all of this fighting, the United States and their allies are carrying out airstrikes across the country, targeting groups that run counter to coalition interests and attack groups that threaten a future pro-Western democratic government (the likelihood of which, in any outcome, seems relatively low). In short, sovereign Syria has collapsed, and rule of law (not to mention international law) seems to have collapsed along with it. Within this context, U.S. coalition airstrikes send a stark message: aggressive military force is permissible if justified by a regional coalition—regardless of sovereign will.


Following the ouster of Mubarak and the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt found itself with Mohammed Morsi, a democratically elected representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, classified by the United States as a terrorist organization. Less than a year later, General Abdel al-Sisi orchestrated a coup to keep power in the hands of the Egyptian military. At the time, the United States condemned the coup and suspended aid to Egypt. On March 31, 2015 the United States resumed aid to Egypt, but the effect of the coup lives on. This sends the tacit message that, similar to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States’ commitment to democracy is not unshakeable, and violations of current international law do not automatically trigger devastating retribution or even international isolation. Thus, the passive recognition contributes to a normative shift in the acceptability of pursuing violent tactics.


In the wake of the post-Ghaddafi power vacuum, Libya now has two operational governments. The conflict between the two governments operates more as an interstate war than a civil war, with each side holding independent territories and recruiting from different power bases. In the eyes of the international community, Islamist forces displaced a pro-Western government and delivered a set-back for hopes of Libyan liberal democracy. The pro-Western retired General Haftar led unaffiliated militants against the Islamists. Seeing common ground, several foreign entities (including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) provided support to Haftar. Subsequent co-opting notwithstanding, the foreign support behind Haftar’s attacks directly challenges the norms condemning the use of the force to affect political outcomes. As such, both the foreign support for non-state actors and the lack of true sovereign representation throws Libya into the community of states where the situational reality challenges the traditionally held norms of non-aggression.


Northern Nigeria has been riddled by an ever-intensifying string of bombings by Islamist insurgents affiliated with the Boko Haram terror group. Not only has Boko Haram wreaked havoc in Nigeria, but they have also carried out devastating cross-border raids into nearby Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Chad has responded with airstrikes into Nigerian territory, disregarding Nigerian sovereignty. The African Union has also pitched in to the help quell the unrest, contributing a regional peacekeeping force of 7,500. With Nigeria unable to contain the Boko Haram threat, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon have joined Nigeria in creating a joint regional force to combat the jihadist group. While this international intervention includes the host state, the reliance on a coalition-based strategy serves to further normalize regional coalitions as a legitimate use of international force.

Map of Boko Haram

            …AND NOW YEMEN

Within this larger context, chaos has broken out in Yemen. Al-Houthi loyalists successfully retook power from President Hadi, forcing Hadi to leave the country. The Houthis, with connections to Iran and other Shiite interests, posed a setback for Sunni Arabs in the region. Given the breakdown of international law on international interventions, Saudi Arabia has been able to leverage the coalition-based intervention logic to assemble an Arab strike-force to wrestle power back to the pro-Hadi loyalist forces. This intervention has received international acceptance and Western support—the United States is playing a supportive role during the ongoing operations.

While Saudi intervention did follow a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorizing the use of force under Article VII, it is worth speculating whether the legitimacy of the Saudi operation stemmed form U.N. authorization or from the use of a regional coalition. The Saudis did not request any formal mandate from the United Nations for the operation, nor was the United Nations referenced in mainstream media coverage in reference to the legitimacy of the air campaign. Instead, as the Saudi government explained over Twitter: “”KSA launches military operations in Yemen with coalition of over 10 countries in response to request from the legitimate Yemen gov.”

Saudi Arabia highlights two sources of legitimacy for their military intervention. First, the Saudis emphasize that the intervention is a response to an aid request from the legitimate sovereign power. This follows the logic that infringements on sovereign territory are less severe when they come at the behest of the sovereign actor. However, military incursions are military incursions, no matter what the source. Moreover, the very act of relying upon external actors to solve internal problems undercuts the normative assumption that sovereign actors are capable and unitary representatives for their government polity. Of course, the argument that a call for aid justifies intervention becomes more difficult within the context of a civil war. The Houthis controlled the state until 2012; what if they had asked for external intervention? Are all past government representatives equally justified in authorizing foreign interventions? One would think not, and the United Nations resolutions help clarify the “legitimate” representative to seek help from the international community. Still, given the normative environment, it is likely that that the Yemeni request for aid served to provide an extra layer of legitimacy.

However, the determinative source of legitimacy stems from the second source: the intervention’s coalition-based nature. In line with the developing trends, interstate violence has become less taboo as long as a regional coalition has deemed it necessary for regional stability. After all, the original purpose of allowing the Security Council to authorize the use of force was the understanding that violence is occasionally necessary for the maintenance of international peace. The coalition-based structure allows states in the region to assess the necessity of forceful intervention within the bounds of a sovereign territory. This normative approach parallels the ongoing effort to marginalize perceived neo-imperialist exercises of power—that regional actors are better suited to determine the fate of their own neighborhood than are the strongest states in the system, i.e. those presiding over the Security Council.

The challenge here is that regional actors are not necessarily more objective than their global counterparts; in fact, the opposite may hold true. Regional power dynamics can lead to forceful interventions that, while serving the interests of a regionally led coalition, attempt to degrade a sovereign actor’s capabilities. This type of interest-driven violence served as the foundational logic behind the balancing strategy that dominated war-torn Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.[2] This trend is particularly ironic insofar as the League of Nations and its United Nations successor were originally designed with the hopes of averting these self-same balance-of-power wars stemming from regional interests.

The international community has not reverted to pre-World War norms of aggression, and this article should not be interpreted as suggesting such. Expansionist military offensives remain taboo, and all interstate operations continue to require the characterization as defensive or protective missions for normative acceptance. Nevertheless, the empirical trend appears to reflect a steady stream of interstate aggression executed without U.N. approval. Instead, if you have a coalition of countries (preferably including regional players) and a defense-oriented mission, states have the green light to use military force to achieve the mission without serious repercussions.

Also, one must distinguish between the ability to intervene and the obligation to do so. The Egyptian military’s coup in 2012 did not elicit an external military response. Instead, the violent regime change sparked verbal condemnation but no military challenge. As such, the new government slowly gained international legitimacy as the international community adapted to the new political reality. In contrast, despite a very similar set of circumstances, the Houthi coup has been stridently opposed by the international community, and has catalyzed the Saudi-led intervention. It is unclear whether the discrepancy in cases resulted from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood lacking willing international allies or if the norms on coalition-based intervention have rapidly progressed between the 2012 Egyptian coup and the Houthi takeover a year and a half later. Such a normative change is not unreasonable; as discussion above explains, the fight against the Islamic State in the interim time period has had a profound impact on the norms relating to the use of force. Either way, the differences between Egypt and Yemen highlight the fact that while coalition-based intervention may be possible, it is by no means guaranteed.

In closing, the United States’ unwillingness to play the part of global enforcer of non-aggression has loosened the stiff constraints on the acceptable uses of force. The normative shield protecting ‘inviolable’ state sovereignty has fractured, allowing for coalition-based operations to slip into the realm of legitimacy. In the future, we can expect to continue seeing coalition-based interventions as new norms develop governing the international use of force.


[1] While one might say that the U.S. has always only selectively enforced non-aggression to ensure that the outcomes align with U.S. interests, the decision to let others take the lead even when the U.S. has strategic interests at stake represents a significant change in international posture.
[2] For example, Robert Gilpin argues that WWI resulted from German fears of a shift in European power distribution.

About Brian Mund

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