Legally Meaningless “Red Line” Crossed in Syria

by Julian Ku

The U.S. Government has finally confirmed what other nations, and certain UN investigators, have been saying for weeks: the Syrian government has been using chemical weapons against the rebel opposition in its ongoing civil war and that at least 100 individuals have been killed. And the White House also repeats a version of the “red line” language President Obama first invoked last fall on the use of chemical weapons. So what does this mean?

As we’ve discussed here previously, it is not clear that the use of chemical weapons crosses a “red line” that would change the legal framework constraining military intervention in Syria by the United States or some other country.  If the U.S. wants to intervene, I don’t quite see how chemical weapons makes its legal case substantially easier.  Moreover, the White House has not revealed any change in its strategy that would necessitate re-thinking the legal framework (e.g. there is no suggestion the White House will intervene, or even ask the UN Security Council to intervene).  But if they do, these legal issues will likely be worth discussing again.

4 Responses

  1. Alas, this meaningless red line does have meaning after all: (influence of folks like Samantha Power?)
    For a few of the reasons we might be troubled by this, see Patrick Cockburn’s piece on the Syrian war in the London Review of Books (6 June 2013).

  2. with respect to NATO, Turkey, Jordan, or the U.S. targeting chemical and biological weapons in Syria as well as support for the opposition at their request, please see Use of Military Force in Syria by Turkey, NATO, and the United States, 34 U. Pa. J. Int’l L. 431 (2013), available on SSRN

    The U. Pa. J. article is available at

  4. Complicating things even further, there seem to be only two countries that share the U.S. view on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army. While others including the U.N. secretary are sceptical about the allegations.
    And the U.N. investigators that Julian is seemingly referring to have been  actually accusing the rebels of having used sarin gas:

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