Almost Everyone Agrees that the U.S. Strikes Against Syria are Illegal, Except for Most Governments

Almost Everyone Agrees that the U.S. Strikes Against Syria are Illegal, Except for Most Governments

The blogosphere is now so fast that we can get an enormous sampling of expert opinion in a very short time. So within 24 hours of President Trump’s military strikes on Syria, we have already heard from former Bush State Department Legal Advisor John Bellinger, former Obama State Department Legal Advisors Harold Koh and Brian Egan, former DOJ officials and law profs Jack Goldsmith and Ryan Goodman, as well as numerous law profs and other experts including our very own Deborah Pearlstein and Edward Swaine. The bottom line: Almost everyone (except for Harold Koh) thinks the strikes violate the U.N. Charter and many think it also violates the U.S. Constitution.

Most of what I have to say I said in 2012-13 on this issue, but I am struck by one group of important actors who seem relatively untroubled by the “illegality” of the U.S. strikes under the UN Charter: states.  With the notable exception of the Russian government, very few states have come out to criticize the U.S. strikes as a violation of international law. No one is saying it is illegal, but it is striking how few are willing to say it is illegal.  I’ve gathered a few statements and links below.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

Q: Does China consider the missile strike on the Syrian airbase to be within the scope of international law? Or do you think it violates existing rules about intervention in other country’s sovereign territory?

A: The Chinese side has always stood for a political settlement of the Syrian issue. Under the current circumstances, we hope all parties can keep calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalating the tension.

The latest developments in Syria highlight once again the urgency of resolving the Syrian issue through political means. We call on all parties not to walk away from the process of political settlement.


France and Germany (President and Chancellor):

The joint statement by Mr Hollande and the German chancellor Angela Merkel said that “President Assad alone carries responsibility for these developments” with his “repeated use of chemical weapons and his crimes against his own people.”

United Kingdom Defence Minister:

The UK says it “fully supports” the US missile strike in Syria and has urged Russia to put more pressure on the Assad regime to end the civil war.

The US targeted an air base it says was responsible for a chemical attack which killed dozens of civilians.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the UK was not asked to take part but backed the “wholly appropriate” strike.

European Union, President of European Council:

“US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria.

Turkey, Deputy Foreign Minister:

TURKEY: NATO ally Turkey, which is a key player in the Syria conflict and has endured choppy relations with Washington recently, welcomed the strikes as “positive.” The deputy foreign minister added: “We believe that the Assad regime must be punished completely in the international arena.”

Turkey called for a no-fly zone in Syria in the wake of the US strike.

Japan, Prime Minister

JAPAN: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan “supports the US government’s resolve that it will never tolerate the spread and use of chemical weapons.”

This survey is not comprehensive and some large players, like India, have yet to weigh in.  But it seems only Russia and Iran have condemned the strikes vigorously.  The general support for the attacks in Europe, the Middle East, along withChina’s acquiescence, seems to show that many states are not very troubled by the violation of Article 2(4) most scholars think has occurred here.  Is this because it is a one-off attack? Or does it suggest Article 2(4) has very little pull with many foreign governments these days?

On the domestic US law front, FiveThirtyEight has counted 69 senators have already issued statements supporting the Syria Strikes and while there are critics on constitutional grounds, it doesn’t seem like close to a majority in Congress.

Of course, none of this means that the experts are wrong on the law. But it is at least worth noting the limited impact of the law so far on governmental actors, as the debate on the legality of the Syria Strikes continues.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
General, National Security Law
Notify of
Gabriel Armas-Cardona
Gabriel Armas-Cardona

I’ve heard a lot regarding the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, but I haven’t heard mention of the more modern responsibility to protect.

My first instinct on why states would remain silent is the developing acceptance of infringing on sovereignty in regards to a responsibility to protect. Based on the idea that Trump targeted the airbase from which the chemical attack came from, it’s arguable (but a weak argument) that he was protecting the population from another possible chemical attack. I believe that that would fall within the doctrine of responsibility to protect.

This is not my area of expertise, so I’d appreciate any thoughts on the matter.

Kenneth Obiakor
Kenneth Obiakor

The responsibility to Protect Doctrine does not support unilateralism outside a Security Council Debate. The legality of all provisional guidelines that directs the integral pursuits of R2P are hinged on the approval of the Security Council and richly promotes collective responsibility.

Richard Galber
Richard Galber

So while all the legal nitpicking as to the legality of the US strike against Syria goes on, Assad can go on slaughtering the Syrian people
That is the type of logic that brings the law into disrepute.
There have been nearly 6 years for the UNSC to show its displeasure with the Syrian regime’s total disregard for its own citizens. The wanton destruction and intentional targeting has elicited limited response from the UN.
The UN and most of its members only seem to manage to unite when its Israel that is in their sights. And this seems to be the case with the liberal left as well
Syria can burn. Iraq can burn. And the silence is deafening, except if its to criticize the US

Adil Haque

Hi Julian,

Thanks for the post. From what you’ve seen, has any State actually said “these strikes were legal”? The closest I’ve seen is “proportionate,” but it’s not clear if that’s a legal claim, and if so what law it’s referencing.

Many thanks,



[…] other states often do just that. Some states will expressly support the United States’ actions, whether on moral, legal or […]


[…] Julian Ku has pointed out that while “almost everyone (except for Harold Koh) thinks the strikes […]


[…] here of the US), and if other states fail to support the action as legal or condemn it as illegal (as is true here of a number of other states), it is not possible to move to a new resonance point where an exception is developed. Instead, we […]


[…] law is far less ambiguous and nuanced than our domestic rules on military engagements. (Opinio Juris: “almost everyone … thinks the strike violates the UN Charter and many think it also […]