Recent Posts

Ground Troops & the Myth of Air Power

by Jens David Ohlin

House Speaker John Boehner said in an interview on Sunday that ground troops may be necessary in order to stop the threat of ISIS. Although his comments were interwoven with lots of unnecessary talk of ISIS being barbarians, which I don’t think is terribly helpful, I do agree with his bottom-line assessment: air power and proxy ground troops won’t be enough to win this war.

This points to a frequent mistake. Politicians think they can eliminate the cost of going to war by conducting an air war. That may work in some situations, but they are a distinct minority. The NATO bombing campaign against Serbia (led by General Clark) was frustratingly slow and borderline ineffective without the introduction of ground troops to make a real difference on the ground.

Air power is effective in some situations, especially when combined with a select number of well-trained, well-equipped, and highly motivated infantry on the ground. Air power might also be appropriate to punish an international wrongdoer and deter them from violating international law in the future, in very isolated ways.

In isolation, air power cannot win a war that is designed to deprive an enemy of governmental control over a territory. An enemy facing only air power can hunker down and wait out the air assault especially when, as in this case, the President at first announced that ground troops were off the table. Obama smartly reversed course and is now issuing more ambiguous statements so as not to motivate ISIS forces to wait out the air assault (which cannot go on forever).

True, grounds troops are not entirely absent from this conflict. It is just that they are from Iraq, Turkey, and the moderate Syrian opposition. But the Iraqi Army is incredibly weak at the moment and there is little incentive for troops to show up to fight. The Syrian opposition is also disorganized. And no amount of money and weapons is going to fix that.

Boehner is right that ground troops are necessary if the US is serious about defeating ISIS. But if that happens, I don’t think the Obama Administration will be able to hang on to the fiction that the intervention is covered by the 9/11 AUMF. A new authorization, and political buy-in from Congress, will be required.

 

Weekly News Wrap: Monday, September 29, 2014

by An Hertogen

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

Middle East and Northern Africa

Asia

  •  Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai will be sworn in as the new President of Afghanistan later today.
  • Protestors in Hong Kong refuse to withdraw and the use of tear gas by the authorities has created new protests to spring up against Beijing’s new rules imposing strict controls on candidate selection for the next elections.

Europe

Americas

World

The Invention of the Khorasan Group and Non-Imminent Imminence

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be back blogging regularly soon, but I want to call readers’ attention to a phenomenal new article at the Intercept by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain about how the US government has cynically manipulated public fears of terrorism in order to justify its bombing campaign in Syria. Recall that Samantha Power — the UN Ambassador formerly known as a progressive — invoked the scary spectre of the Khorasan Group in her letter to the Security Council concerning the US’s supposed right to bomb terrorists in Syria in “self-defence.” As it turns out, not only is there literally no evidence that the Khorasan Group intends to launch an imminent attack on US interests — unless “imminent” is defined as “sometime before the Rapture” — there is also very little evidence that the Khorasan Group actually exists in a form that could threaten the US. Here is a snippet from the article on the latter point:

Even more remarkable, it turns out the very existence of an actual “Khorasan Group” was to some degree an invention of the American government. NBC’s Engel, the day after he reported on the U.S. Government’s claims about the group for Nightly News, seemed to have serious second thoughts about the group’s existence, tweeting “Syrian activists telling us they’ve never heard of Khorosan or its leader.”

Indeed, a NEXIS search for the group found almost no mentions of its name prior to the September 13 AP article based on anonymous officials. There was one oblique reference to it in a July 31 CNN op-ed by Peter Bergen. The other mention was an article in the LA Times from two weeks earlier about Pakistan which mentioned the group’s name as something quite different than how it’s being used now: as “the intelligence wing of the powerful Pakistani Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.” Tim Shorrock noted that the name appears in a 2011 hacked Stratfor email published by WikiLeaks, referencing a Dawn article that depicts them as a Pakistan-based group which was fighting against and “expelled by” (not “led by”) Bahadur.

There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner. Aki Peritz, a CIA counterterrorism official until 2009, told Time: “I’d certainly never heard of this group while working at the agency,” while Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said: ”We used the term [Khorasan] inside the government, we don’t know where it came from…. All I know is that they don’t call themselves that.”

I don’t know for a fact that the Khorasan Group doesn’t exist. But it is profoundly troubling that the Obama administration has provided no evidence that it does — especially given that its case for the international legality of bombing Syria is based so heavily on the supposed threat the Khorasan Group poses to the “homeland.”

And let’s not forget that the Obama administration is doing everything it can to denude the concept of “self-defence” of all meaning. Here is the Intercept article on the “imminent” threat posed to the US by the maybe-existing Khorasan Group:

One senior American official on Wednesday described the Khorasan plotting as “aspirational” and said that there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works.

Literally within a matter of days, we went from “perhaps in its final stages of planning its attack” (CNN) to “plotting as ‘aspirational’” and “there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works” (NYT).

Late last week, Associated Press’ Ken Dilanian – the first to unveil the new Khorasan Product in mid-September – published a new story explaining that just days after bombing “Khorasan” targets in Syria, high-ranking U.S. officials seemingly backed off all their previous claims of an “imminent” threat from the group. Headlined “U.S. Officials Offer More Nuanced Take on Khorasan Threat,” it noted that “several U.S. officials told reporters this week that the group was in the final stages of planning an attack on the West, leaving the impression that such an attack was about to happen.” But now:

Senior U.S. officials offered a more nuanced picture Thursday of the threat they believe is posed by an al-Qaida cell in Syria targeted in military strikes this week, even as they defended the decision to attack the militants.

James Comey, the FBI director, and Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, each acknowledged that the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target. . . .

Kirby, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said, “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months….We can have this debate about whether it was valid to hit them or not, or whether it was too soon or too late… We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”

Regarding claims that an attack was “imminent,” Comey said: “I don’t know exactly what that word means… ‘imminent’” — a rather consequential admission given that said imminence was used as the justification for launching military action in the first place.

According to the Obama administration, in short, the US is entitled to act in self-defence against “bad dudes” no matter when — or even if — those “bad dudes” might launch an armed attack against the US. This isn’t even the Bush administration’s “anticipatory self-defence.” This is, for lack of a better expression, “hypothetical self-defence.” Apparently, the US government believes it is entitled to use force against a non-state actor anywhere in the world as long as it can imagine a future state of affairs in which that actor would attack it.

The mind — and international law — reels.

Guest Post: ‘New Battlefields, Old Laws’ – Debate on the Future of the 2001 AUMF

by Myriam Feinberg

[Myriam Feinberg is a Post-Doctoral Fellow of the GlobalTrust Project, Tel Aviv University (as of October 1, 2014)]

As part of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s 14th Annual World Summit on Counter-Terrorism, a workshop was jointly organised by the ICT and the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism of Syracuse University (INSCT), as part of the project ‘New Battlefields, Old Laws.’ Started in 2006 to adapt our understanding of laws of war, the NBOL Project brings together scholars and experts who aim to address the challenges for the future of armed conflict.

This year’s NBOL workshop dealt with the way we adapt to new threats and expanding battlefields in counterterrorism and culminated in an Oxford Union style debate on the future of the 2001 AUMF. A video of the debate can be found here.

The debate could not have been timelier as the blogosphere is abuzz following President Obama’s speech on the United States’ ‘Strategy to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’ delivered on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of the attacks of 11 September 2001. In his speech, the President authorised further air strikes against ISIL militants in Iraq and appeared to authorise air strikes in Syria.   He stated that he secured bipartisan support and welcomed further congressional action, yet also made clear that he did not need further authorisation from Congress to launch the strike. Other official statements made clear that the administration was relying on the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, which authorized the use of force against those responsible for the September 11, 2001, as a justification for striking ISIL. This comes despite a national security address at the US Military Academy in May 2013, when Obama said he wanted to repeal the 2001 AUMF.

At the NBOL workshop, Professor Nathan A. Sales of Syracuse University College of Law and Professor Jennifer Daskal of American University Washington College of Law debated the following motion: ‘This House believes that the 2001 AUMF should be amended to authorize force against future terrorist threats’.

(more…)

Events and Announcements: September 28, 2014

by An Hertogen

Calls for Papers

  • The British Institute of International and Comparative Law (BIICL) is making a worldwide Call for Papers on British Influences on International Law 1915-2015. The Institute is publishing a series of books to commemorate the centenary of the establishment in London of the Grotius Society (a forerunner of BIICL) in 1915. One of these books is on British Influences on International Law in the period from 1915 until today. They invite anyone who has an interest in writing a chapter on an aspect of this topic to submit an abstract for consideration. This invitation extends to established academics, early career researchers, doctoral researchers, those with experience in government and other practice, and anyone else with relevant expertise, whether based in the UK or elsewhere. The authors of the selected papers may be chosen for presentation as part of a seminar series which is likely to be held in the first half of 2015. For further information, please visit their website or contact the project co-ordinator Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci on j [dot] gauci [at] biicl [dot] org.
  • The Refugee Law Initiative (RLI) invites submissions to its Working Paper Series. The series provides for the rapid dissemination of preliminary research results and other work in progress, reflecting cross and inter-disciplinary interests within refugee law and policy, broadly defined. Recent papers have considered integration, detention and smuggling of asylum-seekers, gender-related asylum claims and long-term encampment. RLI Working Papers are prominently displayed on the RLI website as a resource for scholars and practitioners worldwide. Papers must be based on original research, conform to the usual standard of academic publishing, be fully referenced and presented in the standard technical format employed by the series. Papers will be evaluated based on their contemporary relevance, contribution to the field, structure and analytical rigour (submission guide). Papers published in the series may subsequently be published in journals or books provided that an acknowledgement is given to the RLI Working Paper Series. Submissions are considered on a rolling basis. For further information, and to submit a paper please contact the Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Ruvi Ziegler, at r [dot] ziegler [at] reading [dot] ac [dot] uk or ruvi [dot] ziegler [at] law [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk.
  • The Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law will hold the ILA-ASIL Asia-Pacific Research Forum on May 25-26, 2015 in Taipei, Taiwan. The theme of the Research Forum is “Integrating the Asia-Pacific: Why International Law Matters?” Paper proposals should be submitted by January 20, 2015 to ila [at] nccu [dot] edu [dot] tw. The call for papers is available online. Other inquiries can be directed to Pasha Hsieh, co-chair of the Research Forum (pashahsieh [at] smu [dot] edu [dot] sg)

Announcements

  • Hart Publishing is delighted to announce that the first issue, published in August, of the Journal on the Use of Force and International Law (JUFIL) is now available online. Please click here for the table of contents. JUFIL is the first peer-reviewed journal covering all aspects of the law governing the use of force (jus ad bellum), as distinct from other areas of international law relating to security issues, such as International Humanitarian Law or International Criminal Law. From the first issue, Hart Publishing is pleased to make the article by Claus Kreß Major Post-Westphalian Shifts and Some Important Neo-Westphalian Hesitations in the State Practice on the International Law on the Use of Force free to view online. To access this article please click on this link and follow the instructions shown (the introduction is also shown on the PDF download). For subscription rates and details on how to subscribe please click here.

Last week’s events and announcements can be found here. If you would like to post an announcement on Opinio Juris, please contact us with a one-paragraph description of your announcement along with hyperlinks to more information.

Weekend Roundup: September 20-26, 2014

by An Hertogen

This week on Opinio Juris, JensJennifer Trahan and Julian discussed the international legal basis for the air strikes against ISIS. Jens also analysed why Khorasan is seen as a more immediate threat to the US than ISIS. For more on the US domestic legal basis, check out Deborah’s post with a snippet from her Daily Beast article on the perennial US War Powers fight.

A guest post by Anton Moiseienko gave some insights in Russian scholarship on the legality of Crimea’s annexation under international law.

Finally, Jessica wrapped up the news and I listed events and announcements.

Many thanks to our guest contributors and have a nice weekend

Guest Post: What do Russian Lawyers Say about Crimea?

by Anton Moiseienko

[Anton Moiseienko received his LL.M. from the University of Cambridge and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Queen Mary, University of London. All translations from Russian in this piece are his own. He is a citizen of Ukraine.]

Few people with any background in international law would doubt that Russia’s annexation of Crimea raises serious questions of compliance with international law. This has certainly been the position of contributors to Opinio Juris, for instance of Kristin Hausler and Robert McCorquodale, Rhodri Williams, and Chris Borgen. Elsewhere, Anne Peters has written a thoughtful article about Crimea’s secession.

One would expect the annexation of Crimea to spark equally lively discussions among Russian experts in international law, as well as prompt them to voice their views before foreign audiences. Importantly, in accordance with Article 15(4) of the Russian Constitution both “universally recognized norms of international law and international treaties” prevail over domestic laws. Thus, the validity of Crimea’s absorption by Russia under international law ought to be of immediate practical concern to Russian lawyers.

However, so far Russian academics and practitioners have largely remained in the shade, at least on the international arena, while Russian state officials felt free to interpret international law up to the point of redesigning it. Yet – what do we know about Russian lawyers’ attitudes to the annexation of Crimea?

One of the rare English-language documents produced by Russian experts in international law is a June 2014 appeal to the ILA by the President of the Russian Association of International Law, Prof. Anatoliy Kapustin. Before that, in April 2014 the same Association held a conference on the international law aspects of Crimea’s integration into Russia together with the Russian Academy of Diplomacy (in Russian). This event, which brought together senior Russian academics and diplomats, reflects the very close connections between the international law profession and the state apparatus that exist in Russia. Taken together, Prof. Kapustin’s letter and the April 2014 conference seem to espouse the views of Russia’s international law elite on Crimea.

Two main issues occupied the minds of Russian lawyers. First, they mused over the deep “historical connections” between Crimea and Russia. Second, they condemned the “cruel lawlessness” and persecution of Russians by the “Kiev regime” (which fits uneasily with the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s observations on human rights abuse in Crimea and separatist-controlled areas). These two basic claims, strongly reminiscent of the official Russian rhetoric and never questioned, were then framed as various legal and quasi-legal arguments.

Interestingly, both Prof. Kapustin and the conference participants went beyond relying on Kosovo. For instance, Prof. Stanislav Chernichenko referred to the restoration of Russia’s “historic rights” rather than to Crimea’s self-determination (although he did not discard the latter either). Indeed, he noted that Russia’s reliance on Kosovo’s precedent was inconsistent with Russia’s own position on Kosovo. Instead, he drew attention to India’s annexation of Goa in 1961 and the USSR’s annexation of South Sakhalin in the aftermath of World War II. Prof. Kapustin went farther back in history and referred in his letter to Northern Schleswig’s 1920 plebiscites for reunion with Denmark.

The annexation of Crimea, however, defies comparison with either India’s decolonization or territorial reconfigurations brought about by the World War II, let alone the Schleswig plebiscites conducted some 25 years before the UN Charter. In recognition of that, Prof. Chernichenko and his colleagues fell back on the alleged transgressions of the “Kiev regime”. Whereas in other circumstances Russia could attempt to remedy the “historic injustice” of Crimea’s separation by negotiations with Kiev, they claim that the “reunion” with Russia was the only viable option in the circumstances.

Dr. Elena Konnova, a guest participant from Belarus, questioned whether either the 1954 transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine within the USSR or arrangements made after Ukraine’s independence in 1991 were incompatible with the jus cogens rule of self-determination. If yes, then in her opinion, international recognition of Ukraine’s borders could not remedy that defect. While a sensible attempt to rationalize her Russian colleagues’ sentiments, I wonder how far this argument would bring them. First, it is not obvious that self-determination of the Crimea’s “nation” (if at all existent) would require Russia and Ukraine to permit them to choose their new homeland upon the breakdown of the USSR, as opposed to granting Crimea autonomy within Ukraine. Second, one might think that allowing past violations of jus cogens to subvert modern borders would be destructive and would potentially nullify the restrictive approach of international law to remedial secession.

Some scholars attempted to assess the validity of the 2014 Crimea’s referendum under Ukrainian constitutional law. For example, Prof. Oleg Khlestov – an experienced diplomat who headed the Soviet delegation at the negotiations leading to the VCLT 1969 – suggested that the Constitution of Ukraine “was not in force” at the time of the referendum because of the “coup d’etat” in Kiev.

In his turn, Prof. Georgiy Velyaminov tried to “drop” from the Ukrainian Constitution Article 73 that only allows territorial changes to be approved by a statewide referendum: he thought it was inconsistent with the right to self-determination under international law and therefore invalid. Even if that inconsistency existed, such “rectification” of Ukraine’s Constitution is flawed. Ukraine is a dualist state and, pursuant to Article 9 of Ukraine’s Constitution, the Constitution prevails over any rules contained in international treaties that Ukraine may ratify.

With regard to international law, several participants of the April 2014 conference grappled with the issue of whether Crimea’s population is a “nation” for the purposes of the right to self-determination. In their view, the predominantly Russian population of the peninsula ought to qualify as a separate “nation”. As to the requirements for remedial secession, naturally they argued that no internal self-determination was possible for the residents of Crimea in “pro-fascist” Ukraine.

Apart from the more formal statements or events such as those described previously, some Russian lawyers chose to express their private opinions on Crimea in the Internet or in print. Grigoriy Vaypan (PhD Candidate at Moscow State University) wrote a piece for the Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law’s blog about the “highly doubtful” validity of Ukraine’s ousted ex-President’s invitation for Russia to invade Crimea before the referendum.

Yet other lawyers prefer Russian-language media and apparently address their concerns to domestic lay audience. Private practitioners Marat Davletbaev and Maria Isaeva regret (in Russian) the “archaic language of Russian diplomacy”:

“In Crimea’s case, Russia – regardless of whether it is right or wrong – communicates with the world in a hopelessly archaic language, as if it were unaware either of the criteria for establishing aggression, or of the serious tensions between the right to self-determination guaranteed by the UN Charter and territorial integrity, or of the rules on non-interference with internal affairs of states, or of the basic requirements for application of the R2P (responsibility to protect) doctrine, or of the definition of “annexation”.

This contrasts with the views of senior academics. Thus, Prof. Ivan Kotlyarov of the Academy of Internal Affairs is another proponent (in Russian) of the “imagine a fascist regime in Ukraine” approach to international law. He somewhat enigmatically argues that the right to self-determination is being denied to citizens of Ukraine (apparently by the government of Ukraine) and that a “genocide” is being perpetrated against the population of the Eastern Ukraine. Ria Novosti, a Russian news agency, quotes (in Russian) Prof. Tatyana Neshataeva of the Academy of Justice claiming that the right to self-determination trumps territorial integrity and, therefore, Crimea’s integration into Russia is lawful.

In conclusion, it would also be fair to note that any criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea largely remains a marginal idea in Russian legal media. For example, a well-known website Pravo.ru omits any references whatsoever to potential unlawfulness of the annexation when reporting legal developments in Crimea, e.g. introduction of Russian legislation and judicial reforms (both in Russian). As mentioned previously, this is particularly surprising in view of Article 15(4) of the Russian Constitution.

Does the Collective Self-Defense Justification Extend to Khorasan? If Not, Then Is There One?

by Julian Ku

I agree with Jens’ excellent post on the importance of the “unwilling or unable” standard to the US justification for legal strikes on non-state actors in Syria.  I agree this action may reveal state practice supporting (or rejecting) this legal justification.  I am curious whether the UK, France, or other states that may be participating in Syria strikes will embrace this theory. (I already know the Russians have roundly rejected this US justification). I also wonder whether this legal justification will weaken, as a policy matter, the ability of the US to effectively attack ISIS.

I do have one additional observation. Tacked on, almost as an afterthought, Ambassador Power’s letter notes that:

In addition, the United States has initiated military actions against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.”

The vague wording of the letter about Khorasan (threats to “the United States and our partners and allies”) as compared to the pretty specific language about ISIS’s attacks on Iraq  (“ to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens, “) suggests that Khorasan is not currently engaged in armed attacks on Iraq.  This means that the U.S. is making a much broader international law claim than for its attacks on ISIS.  The U.S. is attacking Khorasan because, like Al Qaeda, it is a terrorist threat to the U.S. itself.  But no actual armed attacks have yet occurred (as far as I know).

It is therefore worth noting whether more  states object to the attacks on Khorasan than on ISIS, because the Khorasan attacks have a weaker international legal justification. My guess is that objecting states like Russia will not bother distinguishing between the two. But it will be interesting to see whether US allies will refuse to join strikes on Khorasan, even if they are willing to strike ISIS in Syria.

The Unwilling or Unable Doctrine Comes to Life

by Jens David Ohlin

Today the U.S. launched airstrikes against ISIS and other extremist groups within Syrian territory. In the past, airstrikes were limited to Iraqi territory, which came with the consent of the Iraq government (and were thus legally uncontroversial from the perspective of jus ad bellum). Today’s airstrikes require a sophisticated legal argument to explain the intrusion on Syria’s territorial sovereignty. Samantha Power’s letter to the United Nations indicates that the Obama administration is relying on a combination of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and the “unwilling or unable” standard:

September 23, 2014

Excellency,

In Iraq’s letter to the United Nations Security Council of September 20, 2014, and other statements made by Iraq, including its letter to the United Nations Security Council of June 25, 2014, Iraq has made clear that it is facing a serious threat of continuing attacks from ISIL coming out of safe havens in Syria. These safe havens are used by ISIL for training, planning, financing, and carrying out attacks across Iraqi borders and against Iraq’s people. For these reasons, the Government of Iraq has asked that the United States lead international efforts to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria in order to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens, and ultimately to enable and arm Iraqi forces to perform their task of regaining control of the Iraqi borders.

ISIL and other terrorist groups in Syria are a threat not only to Iraq, but also to many other counties, including the United States and our partners in the region and beyond. States must be able to defend themselves, in accordance with the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, as reflected in Article 51 if the UN Charter, when, as is the case here, the government of the State where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks. The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe-havens effectively itself. Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing ISIL threat to Iraq, including by protecting Iraqi citizens from further attacks and by enabling Iraqi forces to regain control of Iraq’s borders. In addition, the United States has initiated military actions against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.

I request that you circulate this letter as a document of the Security Council.

Samantha J. Power

His Excellency
Mr. Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General of the United Nations
New York, NY

So the structure of the argument goes as follows. The right of response is originally Iraqi, and the U.S. right of intervention is parasitic upon the Iraqi claim. Iraq has been attacked by ISIS, thus triggering Iraq’s right of self-defense against ISIS. Furthermore, since Syria is apparently unable to adequately respond to the ISIS threat and prevent its forces from using Syria as a base of operations to launch attacks against Iraq, then Iraq is entitled to use military force against ISIS installations and forces in Syria, even without the consent of the Syrian government or authorization from the Security Council. In other words, this falls under the inherent right of self-defense that is carved out by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter as an exception to the general prohibition on the use of force contained in article 2 of the U.N. Charter. The U.S. is intervening militarily to vindicate Iraq’s self-defense interest as a case of individual or collective self-defense.

A few observations here:

First, this was a predictable development. I don’t see another avenue for the U.S. to legally defend the intervention, unless it wanted to rely on the even more controversial RTP doctrine, which isn’t terribly relevant here. Nor was a Security Council resolution possible (given Russian and Chinese positions on Syria).

Second, it will solidify the growing interpretation of the customary international law on self-defense as applying to attacks by non-state actors. I view this position as absolutely correct, pace the International Court of Justice and its unsupported statement that the Article 51 right of self-defense only applies to attacks by states (which is nowhere mentioned in Article 51 anyway). In addition to the Security Council resolution after the 9/11 attacks, the world community’s reaction to the armed conflict against ISIS will be highly relevant for crystallizing the correct interpretation of self-defense as applying to attacks from state and non-state actors alike.

Third, the world reaction to the conflict against ISIS in Syria will help resolve the uncertain status of the unwilling or unable standard for force against non-state actors in third-party territory. Although the status of the doctrine has in the past been in doubt, international law is very much an evolving creature, and years from now the present conflict will no doubt be an important exhibit in that debate. In other words, even if “unwilling or unable” is not the current state of the law, it may well be very soon on account of the present conflict, the U.S. legal justification for it, and the world’ community’s reaction to same.

 

Guest Post: Pesky Questions of International Law: What’s the basis for air strikes in Syria?

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is an Associate Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at NYU-SPS.]

President Obama’s speech on September 10th raised many legal issues, including, whether there needs to be added Congressional authorization for the use of force, or one can utilize the pre-existing Authorization for the Use of Military Force (“AUMF”) that Congress granted after 9/11 (see Deborah Pearlstein’s post and Peter Spiro’s).  But his speech also raised profound questions at a second level – that of public international law (touched upon by Kevin Jon Heller).

This may not seize the attention of the American public, but surely coalition partners would ask these questions:  what was Obama’s basis for the legality of air strikes in Syria?

It is somewhat troubling that President Obama took the step of supporting air strikes in Syria, without articulating any clear legal foundation at the international level.  Just to be clear, the issue of air strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (“ISIS”) does not raise similar questions, as Iraq had earlier consented to the use of force.

There are a number of possible legal rationales for air strikes in Syria, but the U.S. needs to make the case under one of these grounds.  Such a legal foundation was not well-articulated in President Obama’s speech.  (more…)

ISIS versus Khorasan

by Jens David Ohlin

The United States continues to launch airstrikes against ISIS. Not only is it unclear if the airstrikes are working to dislodge ISIS from its territory, but recent press reports suggest that ISIS is not even the most important threat facing U.S. interests.

The New York Times quotes Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as saying that the militant group Khorasan poses as much threat to the United States as ISIS:

Some American officials and national security experts said the intense focus on the Islamic State had distorted the picture of the terrorism threat that has emerged from the chaos of Syria’s civil war, and that the more immediate threats still come from traditional terror groups like Khorasan and the Nusra Front, which is Al Qaeda’s designated affiliate in Syria.

Mr. Fadhli, 33, has been tracked by American intelligence agencies for at least a decade. According to the State Department, before Mr. Fadhli arrived in Syria, he had been living in Iran as part of a small group of Qaeda operatives who had fled to the country from Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. Iran’s government said the group was living under house arrest, but the exact circumstances of the Qaeda operatives were disputed for years, and many members of the group ultimately left Iran for Pakistan, Syria and other countries.

In 2012, the State Department identified Mr. Fadhli as Al Qaeda’s leader in Iran, directing “the movement of funds and operatives” through the country. A $7 million reward was offered for information leading to his capture. The same State Department release said he was working with wealthy “jihadist donors” in Kuwait, his native country, to raise money for Qaeda-allied rebels in Syria.

The argument for this assessment, I suppose, is that while ISIS controls a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, their ambitions are currently focused on territorial expansion and local control. Although they have foreign fighters with foreign passports (and thus easy access to foreign territories), they have so far demonstrated little interest in launching terror attacks in the United States. Of course, that might change in the future once ISIS consolidates control over its territory, but for now it is an accurate statement of the current state of affairs.

In contrast, Khorasan is reportedly more focused on traditional terrorist goals: launching attacks against western countries. The group is led by a former Osama Bin Laden associate named Muhsin al-Fadhli. He was allegedly responsible for, among other things, the bombing of a French oil tanker, MV Limburg, in 2002. (A military commission recently dropped charges against defendant al-Nashiri in connection with that bombing, holding that the government had introduced no evidence to show that the MV Limburg bombing was perpetrated in connection with the armed conflict against al-Qaeda, a necessary predicate for the commission to exercise jurisdiction over the case.)

Americans often ignore the internal disputes between these various organizations, producing a vastly oversimplified portrait of the local political situation. In addition to ISIS and Khorasan, each with different agents, al-Qaeda has its own syndicate in the region, the Nusra Front, which is fighting for control over Syria against both ISIS and the government regime of President Assad. One point that the Times article makes is that the U.S. military intervention against ISIS might end up helping the Nusra Front. After the US degrades the military capabilities of ISIS, the Nusra Front might consolidate its control of the anti-Assad faction and inherit any opportunistic fighters now working for ISIS. The only way to prevent this from happening is to make sure that the moderate opposition is poised to “fill the vacuum” once ISIS is weakened. However, I’m not terribly optimistic that the US can ensure that their assistance to the moderate opposition ends up in the right hands. We have enough trouble controlling government bureaucracy in our own country; doing it in war-torn Syria seems near impossible.

As for Khorasan and its relative threat-level versus ISIS, only time will tell which group is most interested in launching terror attacks in the West. Al-Fadhli’s association with Bin Laden and his alleged participation in previous terror attacks suggests that Khorasan, and the threat it represents, should be taken seriously. The fact that it does not carry the “al-Qaeda” moniker should not confuse anyone regarding the threat that it represents.

All of this suggests that US policy might be too reactive. The Obama administration only put the ISIS threat on the front burner after the beheadings generated mass outrage. The method it selected to fight ISIS (airstrikes) does not appear to be working, and ISIS continues to gain territory and execute prisoners. On top of that, greater dangers lurk in the extremist groups that have been pushed off the front pages by recent events.

On the Perennial U.S. War Powers Fight

by Deborah Pearlstein

For readers interested in the domestic U.S. law and history of how the U.S. government authorizes the use of force abroad, I had a little piece this weekend over at Daily Beast summarizing the state of play. Among other things, it laments not only the executive practice of not going to Congress as often as it should, but also the gradual loss of other checks on the war power the Constitution’s drafters expected would operate. Here’s a snippet.

The framers reasons for requiring congressional assent for engagements beyond [self defense] reflected their belief that war was “the greatest of national calamities” and should therefore require the agreement of more—not fewer—members of government. More, it was motivated by a commitment to political accountability in a democracy. Rejecting the British “new model” army of Oliver Cromwell and its associated tradition of tyranny and oppression, the framers thought our armed forces should be manned by the citizen-soldier, one incapable of being turned to oppress The People of which he was part. The People themselves would be called up to fight. The Constitution would require Congress publicly to authorize military expenditures “in the face of their constituents” every two years. And only Congress could vote to take the country into war. War would and should be impossible in a free society without The People and their representatives’ consent. Fast forward two centuries, and all these checks have long since ceased to function. The citizen-soldier gave way to national conscription, which in turn gave way to today’s all-volunteer force. The requirement that Congress publicly authorize all military funding has been weakened by today’s vast reliance on private contractors, making it easier for legislators to shield huge swaths of military-related spending from public view by lodging them in less visible appropriations for other departments…. Madison assumed individuals in power would be ambitious, would want to assert their views, and would want to use their power to affect change. Ambition in Congress would counteract ambition in the Executive, and the daily struggle would help keep all the branches in check. But ours has become a Congress lacking all ambition, preferring to hide in the shadows of presidents whose own political courage sometimes fails. Together, they have helped make it ever more possible for the American people to neither feel nor bear the costs of war.