Would Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons Change the Legality of U.S. Intervention?
The U.S. government has been making all sorts of official and unofficial threats to act if the Syrian government uses chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war.
(CBS News) Whether the U.S. enters the war in Syria appears to be up to the dictator Bashir al-Assad.
On Monday, CBS News reported the Assad regime had given orders to prepare chemical weapons for possible use to put down the revolt that has been raging for more than a year and a half.
President Obama said use of these weapons of mass destruction would be “totally unacceptable.”
One obvious but important legal question: would the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons affect the legality of a strike by foreign powers (like the U.S.) against that government? My understanding of existing international law governing the use of force is that the use of such weapons in an ongoing civil conflict is no doubt horrible, but not enough to overcome strict rules against an outside military intervention (unless that intervention was approved by the UN Security Council).
If such weapons are used, the U.S. is signaling that it would immediately take military action. Assuming no Security Council approval, I think the U.S. would be in technical violation of the UN Charter. Although this may be correct as a matter of international law, it seems like a silly result. Weapons of Mass Destruction are indeed different than conventional weapons and it seems like the use of such weapons should trigger different consequences. (Wait, this sounds like the Bush Doctrine! It Lives!) Hopefully, Assad will not force the resolution of this legal question.