08 May Charlie Dunlap’s Defence of Israel’s Attacks on Hezbollah in Syria
Last week, Asaf Lubin offered a compelling post at Just Security wondering why Israel’s repeated attacks on Hezbollah arms shipments in Syria have not received the same kind of jus ad bellum scrutiny as the US’s recent attack on a Syrian airfield. Today, Charles Dunlap provides his answer on the same blog: the Israeli attacks are clearly legal, so why would anyone scrutinise them? Here are the relevant paragraphs:
[I]t appears to me that the Israeli strike sought to destroy weapons in transit before Hezbollah can burrow them into densely-populated areas. Of course, some JAB scholar might argue about the imminence of the threat as justifying anticipatory self-defense, but if one carefully reads the Obama administration’s “Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations” on that point (p. 9), it would be hard not to conclude that the strike would fit the criteria.
It is especially telling that the Obama administration concluded – correctly in my view – that it is “now increasingly recognized by the international community, the traditional conception of what constitutes an ‘imminent’ attack must be understood in light of the modern-day capabilities, techniques, and technological innovations of terrorist organizations.”
Along that line, this past January UK Attorney General Jeremy Wright gave a speech which echoed much of the Obama Administration’s approach. Wright does caution that “remote threats or threats that have not yet materialized” would not fit the necessary criteria, but I don’t think in the case of Hezbollah those exclusions would apply. Additionally, Wright endorsed – as does the Obama framework – Sir Daniel Bethlehem’s principles laid out in 2012 that included assessing whether there will be another “clear opportunity to act” defensively.
In other words, the analysis of “imminence” in this instance could properly take into account Hezbollah’s history of hostile actions against Israel, as well as its adaption of a “technique” which is “designed to exacerbate civilian risk.” A strike on the Damascus warehouses makes sense as it could well be the last “clear opportunity to act” before the weapons could be embedded into civilian areas in easy range of Israel where they could be countered only at great risk to noncombatants.
Thus, the lack of JAB discussion about the reported Israeli bombings in Syria may simply reflect that the bulk of the international community finds that the use of force under these circumstances is an acceptable act in anticipatory self-defense. We can’t ignore the fact that few nations other than Russia or Syria evinced much concern about the legality of the strike.
I don’t find Charlie’s argument convincing. The first problem concerns his claim that the lack of attention to Israel’s attacks “may simply reflect that the bulk of the international community finds that the use of force under these circumstances is an acceptable act in anticipatory self-defense.” He cites only two states in defence of the idea that the “international community” accepts this type of anticipatory self-defence: the US and the UK. Needless to say, two Global North states known for their aggressive interpretation of the jus ad bellum do not an “international community” make. Moreover, Charlie fails to acknowledge the repeated denunciations of anticipatory self-defence by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which represents 120 states. 120>2.
To be fair, Charlie seemingly tries to address this problem by implying that the failure of states (other than Russia and Syria) to specifically condemn the Israeli attacks indicates that they accept the US and UK understanding of imminence. But that clearly isn’t the case. As he acknowledges, Israel itself has not claimed that the attacks are legitimate anticipatory self-defence. Nor has any other state on Israel’s behalf — the US and UK included. The “silence” of the international community can thus hardly be interpreted as acquiescence — particularly in light of NAM’s repeated denunciation of anticipatory self-defence. States are not required to respond to scholarly interpretations of the use of force. When Israel claims its actions are legal because they represent anticipatory self-defence and NAM remains silent, we’ll talk.
It’s also worth noting that Charlie’s account of Israel’s attacks in Syria does not even bring them within the ambit of anticipatory self-defence — or at least not easily. According to him, “the Israeli strike sought to destroy weapons in transit before Hezbollah [could] burrow them into densely-populated areas.” Charlie finds such “burrowing” problematic — justifiably! — because it makes it more difficult for Israel to destroy the weapons caches without causing disproportionate civilian harm. But that is a jus in bello problem, not a jus ad bellum one. The fact that Hezbollah weapons are in a difficult to attack location does not mean that those weapons will be immediately used against Israel. And that is true even in light of Hezbollah’s “history of hostile actions,” which hardly indicates that Hezbollah attacks Israel whenever it has the material means to do so. The mere presence of the weapons in a location near to Israel thus seems to represent precisely the kind of “remote threat or threat that [has] not yet materialized” that Jeremy Wright, the UK Attorney General whom Charlie cites in defence of his position, says does not give rise to the right of self-defence.
I will say, though, that Charlie’s explanation of the Israeli attacks raises an interesting issue concerning the relationship between the jus in bello and the jus ad bellum. We are accustomed to the idea that the two legal regimes are independent, and it is beyond doubt that failing to comply with the jus ad bellum does not affect the equal application of the jus in bello. But the converse is not true, as the ICJ specifically affirmed in the Nuclear Weapons case (para. 42):
[A] use of force that is proportionate under the law of self- defence, must, in order to be lawful, also meet the requirements of the law applicable in armed conflict which comprise in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.
The jus ad bellum requirement that self-defence comply with IHL does, in fact, suggest that the imminence of an attack should be assessed in light of the victim state’s ability to defend itself in a way that complies with IHL. So I don’t think we can reject the “last clear opportunity to act” understanding of imminence out of hand. On the contrary, if an attack will only become imminent under the traditional conception at a time when the victim state cannot defend itself in an IHL-compliant way, I think the victim state should be entitled to defend itself at a temporally earlier moment, when IHL compliance is still possible.
Even that “relaxed” idea of imminence, however, presupposes that the defended-against attack is more than merely hypothetical. So it’s difficult to see how Israel’s strikes on Hezbollah’s arms shipments could qualify as legitimate acts of self-defence. On the contrary: they are precisely the kind of anticipatory self-defence that international law prohibits.