Last Thursday, the United States launched strikes on the Shayrat Air Field in Damascus in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun that killed over 80 civilians. Non-governmental organizations such as the International Rescue Committee have called on the United States to build upon these strikes “to stop the killing and build a durable peace.” Despite such urging, pro-government and Russian forces continue to bomb civilians in Khan Shaykhun and across Syria with minimal consequences from the international community, and the Trump administration has struggled to clearly respond to such actions or articulate an overarching policy towards Syria. Despite its initial shock factor, dropping 59 tomahawk missiles on a Syrian government facility did not resolve underlying issues of the conflict, and is most certainly not a substitute for justice in Khan Shaykhun or Syria. To prevent further atrocities from occurring with impunity, the United States must develop a coherent, enduring strategy to end the conflict in Syria in accordance with international law.
Immediately following the strikes, debate ensued about the legality and morality of the United States’ actions. John P. Bellinger III, an attorney at Arnold & Palmer, LLP, stipulated that the strikes may be (and have been) justified under U.S. law per the War Powers Resolution. Others, such as Ingrid Wuerth, a professor of International Law at Vanderbilt University have said that Trump administration contravened international law by failing to get approval from the UN Security Council through a Chapter VII resolution. Meanwhile, Ashley Deeks, a University of Virginia Law School professor has claimed that the White House began constructing a moral reasoning for its missile strikes in Syria “using the same kinds of factor-based arguments we saw NATO member states use in Kosovo.” Yet, Shane Reeves, a professor of Law at West Point has argued that discussing the morality of the strikes is “inherently subjective, and consequently, easily abused.”
Morality and legality aside, the Trump administration has done little to move the needle on genuine diplomatic efforts towards constructing a long-term, nationwide cessation of hostilities across Syria and a durable peace agreement. Such a ceasefire must be endorsed through a UN Security Council resolution that establishes independent UN or International Committee of the Red Cross monitors, with the help of Syrian human rights documentation groups, to investigate and identify any potential breaches of an agreement. Once talking, the parties to the negotiations must grapple with how to hold perpetrators accountable, promote mechanisms that provide redress for victims and create a transition plan towards an inclusive, democratic government.
The United States will need to play a key role in this process, which in turn necessitates the establishment of a policy on the fate of Bashar Al-Assad and the future of Syria. The administration has taken differing stances on this matter. Despite UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s strong statements that there is no further role for Assad going forward, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made conflicting statements over the past several days and President Donald Trump has been even less clear on whether he is content with Assad remaining in power. Until the new administration internally agrees upon how to approach a political transition in Syria, the United States will continue to give Syria and Russia free rein to violate international humanitarian and human rights law ─ so long as they do not use chemical weapons.
As media coverage over the past few days has revealed, military strikes produce flashy headlines. However, one strike will not cause conflict parties to bow to international pressure if they do not take the prospect of negotiations seriously. Any military action in Syria must be firmly grounded in international law and used for the sole purpose of complementing genuine diplomatic efforts based on a clear Syria policy to end the crisis. Without addressing human rights violations committed by all conflict parties in Syria, the safety and stability of the Syrian people will continue to hang in the balance.
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