Syria and the Collapse of the International System

Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Russia, 2017. The three guarantors of the “de-escalation zones” in Syria. Photo from Wikipedia

The past few weeks have seen the emergence of a new narrative about the conflict in Syria. It is not, as had been widely reported towards the end of 2017, winding down, but rather entering a new phase. While the intervention of foreign powers has defined the war for years, the past few months have seen a profound shift. Not only are foreign powers becoming increasingly active on the ground, they are also increasingly focused on each other. The last two weeks alone have seen incendiary remarks from Turkey regarding the US position in Manbij, Israeli strikes against Iranian air defense, and three foreign states (Israel, Russia, and Turkey) losing aircraft in Syria. The possibility for direct clashes is growing. At this stage of the conflict, with the Syrian government having regained much of its territory, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) largely destroyed, it should be time for all parties to refocus on negotiations instead of escalating tensions on the battlefield to the detriment of civilians.

One vital aspect of the internationalization of the conflict has been the flagrant violation of international law. Combined with the failures of the UN Security Council and the UN-mediated peace process, the war in Syria is now taking place completely outside of the international system. The following is an analysis of the actions of three of the major international actors in the conflict, and the United Nations, which has failed to avert the crisis.


  1. The United States. The United States first intervened in Syria in September 2014, leading an international coalition aimed at defeating ISIS. The Obama administration justified this intervention under Article 51 of the UN Charter, claiming that the country was acting in both national and collective defense, protecting itself and its ally Iraq against the threat of ISIS. The national defense argument is dubious, while ISIS has killed US citizens in Syria, it has never attacked US soil, but the collective defense argument is stronger. However, the Trump administration’s recent expansion of the US mission in Syria is not covered by this legal framework. In a speech at the Hoover Institute last month, Secretary Tillerson made clear that the United States plans to maintain an open-ended presence in Eastern Syria after ISIS is defeated. Even under the most liberal readings of Article 51, this type of open-ended presence cannot be justified.

In addition to its illegal presence in the country, serious concerns have arisen over the rate of civilian deaths from US airstrikes, particularly during the fight for Raqqa last summer. The UN High commissioner for Human Rights said that, “. . . the attacking forces may be failing to abide by the international humanitarian law principles of precautions, distinction, and proportionality.” US forces have denied these accusations.

  1. Russia. In September 2015, Russia responded to a request for military assistance from Assad and began airstrikes within the country. Because of Assad’s request for assistance, Russia’s involvement in Syria is considered an ‘intervention upon invitation,’ and hence is permissible under international law. While Russia’s presence may be legal, its actions are not. Russian forces have consistently been accused of serious violations of international humanitarian law, both when operating independently and in concert with the Syrian government. Such accusations have included, but are not limited to, the purposeful targeting of civilians, hospitals, and schools, the use of cluster munitions, and the use of incendiary weapons in populated areas. The most recent example of such horrific violations can be seen in the indiscriminate bombing of the besieged city of Eastern Ghouta.
  1. Turkey. In response to the ISIS presence along the Syrian-Turkish border and the advancements of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Turkey launched Operations Euphrates Shield in August 2016. Like the United States, Turkey justified its incursion into Northern Syria under Article 51, claiming a national threat from both ISIS and the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While a limited incursion may have been valid under Article 51, the operation led to Turkish occupation of an estimated 859 square miles of Northern Syria ⸺ an action that goes well beyond a reasonable reading of the article. Turkey’s presence has only grown since, first establishing observation points in Idlib and more recently with the commencement of Operation Olive Branch and its incursion into Afrin, where high civilian death tolls have also been reported.
  1. The United Nations. The transgressions of these international actors are taking place in the larger context of the failure of the international system. Not only have broader attempts to bring peace to Syria been unsuccessful, but no serious attempts have been made to control the growing roles of foreign states in the conflict. The UN Security Council has been made powerless by the presence of Russia, one of the worst violators of international law in Syria. Russia has wielded its veto to block action on the conflict a total of eleven times. The veto power of the United States likely means the UNSC cannot control the violations of any of the international actors on either side of the conflict.

The UNSC has not only failed to address the illegal actions of intervening states, but the UN negotiation process has consistently been skewed towards issues valued by those states, such as counter terrorism, future elections, and constitution drafting, rather than immediate humanitarian needs and an end to human rights violations. Instead of controlling the actions of foreign states in Syria, the negotiations have relied on them as mediators. In light of the failures of the UN process, Russia has initiated a separate series of negotiations. While these negotiations are ostensibly complimentary to the Geneva talks, in reality they have not been centered on the Syrian people or Resolution 2254. The fact that UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura is a participant  ⸺ rather than the leader  ⸺ of this negotiation process shows a disturbing lack of respect for UN processes.

The current state of the conflict in Syria should be deeply disturbing to anyone invested in the rule of law and the role of the international system in creating and preserving peace. It represents a failure of that system at every level. Syria has become a playing field for international powers, with no actor able to effectively mediate their actions, leaving the people of Syria suffering in the midst of a conflict that is not their own. Successful negotiations will remain out of reach until the international community acknowledges the extent of its failures in Syria, reflects on what weaknesses have allowed for such a catastrophe, and rededicates itself to respecting, in both name and action, international law. This is not only necessary in order to create a just future for Syria, but to prevent this type of chaotic, internationalized war, from becoming the new normal.

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