23 Sep 2014

US air strikes in Syria – Q&A

In the early hours of the morning, US air strikes targeted Islamic State and other Islamist groups in Syria for the first time. Channel 4 News asks whether it is legal, and where it might end.

Would air strikes be legal?

President Obama said that the strikes were against Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria, and came after he “made clear that as part of this campaign the United States would take action against targets in both Iraq and Syria so that these terrorists can’t find safe haven anywhere”.

In the case of Iraq, the question of whether air strikes, of which there have been almost 200 so far, are legal is less significant – Baghdad has invited assistance from foreign powers to help it defend itself against IS.

Syria is different, because there has not been such a request. Indeed, President Assad has said that military action against his government would violate international law.

Previously, David Cameron has said that he thinks the Assad regime is “illegitimate” due to the president’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.

If this position were to be accepted, it would mean that air strikes could not be said to violate anyone’s sovereignty, as Syria would not be regarded as a sovereign nation.

But critics counter that the United Nations recognised the Assad regime when signing the deal to destroy chemical weapons last year, so the argument does not quite wash.

Broadly, there are two legal routes by which the US, and potentially the UK, could engage in the use of force: article 51 of the UN Charter, and the UN Security Council.

Article 51 says that states have the right to self-defence, including collective self-defence, against armed attack. It also allows for self-defence in anticipation of an imminent attack.

So, the US – or indeed the UK – may try and claim that in order to assist Iraq to defend itself, it is necessary to defeat IS in Syria too. Mr Obama said this morning that the strikes in Syria were launched “to disrupt plotting by seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria known as the Khorosan Group”. This is a group which US officials last week named as being a terrorist organisation headed by members of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, with plans to specifically attack western targets.

The US and allies may also attempt to argue that IS in itself is a threat to their own security, although there are no British or American troops stationed in Syria coming under fire. The recent western hostage killings would be unlikely to provide a legally robust defence for military action.

Likewise, any argument IS claims to make about intending to overthrow the western world would not stand up as an “imminent threat”, justifying the use of retaliatory military force.

What may be a more obvious legal justification is enlisting the support of the Arab states. Jordan, on Syria’s border, can point to a series of incursions and attacks.

This morning, US Central Command said that Bahrain, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, participated in, or supported, the strikes.

The other route is through the UN Security Council. But for a resolution to be passed, it would need to be agreed upon unanimously by the five permanent members – China, Russia, France, the US and the UK – and four out of 10 non-permanent members. Russia has so far been a steadfast ally of President Assad.

What is the government’s position?

As news of the US strikes in Syria broke, Downing Street said that David Cameron’s position remains “unchanged”. That is that the UK is not yet at the point of making the decision over whether to join in, but nothing – including air strikes – is off the table.

Earlier this month, Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, was overruled by Downing Street after he said he was “very clear” that RAF planes would not strike targets inside the country.

For No 10 to slap him down in such a manner suggests the government needs to be seen to be geuninely open to the idea. Even if it is not followed through.

We asked Downing Street whether Mr Cameron has been seeking legal advice over whether to launch air strikes in Syria. It did not want to comment, except to say that “he gets legal advice on a range of issues all the time”.

What about Labour?

Mr Cameron is reportedly due to recall parliament by the end of the week, and it is understood that he believes he really needs Labour’s support for any air strikes.

Some on the frontbenches may still be smarting from Labour’s refusal to support military action in Syria over President Assad’s use of chemical weapons last year. But signs are that the tide is turning among the Labour party.

This morning, Chuka Ummuna, shadow business secretary, told the BBC that “[Islamic State] need to be eliminated, they are an evil organisation. I do think the public draws a distinction between the IS situation and what was being proposed in Syria last year.”

Later in the day, Ed Miliband backed US strikes against Syria, and urged Mr Cameron to seek a UN Security Council resolution. Whether this translates to parliamentary backing for the government remains to be seen.

What does IS want?

IS has publicly said that it wants to establish a caliphate – an Islamic state – and it is difficult to see how its recent release of videos should help it this aim.

It goes without saying that the videos are a form of propaganda. They spread a political agenda, but can also be used as a recruitment tool.

Amid reports that the gruesome beheading featured in three videos were putting people off, there have been suggestions that the group is attempting to portray a less horrific side.

Latterly, videos have used John Cantlie, a photojournalist captured by the group, as a mouthpiece for spoken word propaganda; the latest warned that America was heading for “another Vietnam”.

But of the 31,000 Islamic State militants which the US claims are based in Syria, just a few hundred are believed to be British, and even less American.

So what is it trying to do by using a Brit as the face of the beheading of an American, even if we do not yet know whether he was responsible for the final act of beheading in itself?

The US and Britain are known to not pay ransoms, so financial gain is not a motive. It almost looks like a direct provocation. Is it?

Some have said that IS wants air strikes against it.

Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said that while it is difficult to speculate, the group may consider military action to be to its advantage.

“What they might benefit from is an extensive unilateral US campaign, particularly that allows IS to kill and capture US troops and use them for propaganda,” he said.

What the US is unlikely to do, however, is to put boots on the ground in Syria which would suit IS’s purposes.

What’s the US endgame?

It is, according to Mr Joshi, to “weaken Islamic State to the state that local actors on the ground can displace it”.

In Syria, it is “not to destroy it, but to weaken it and make sure they can’t use Syria as a safe haven”.

This afternoon, President Obama said the US “will not tolerate safe havens” for any group that threatens the United States and its allies.

He said that his overall plan involves training local forces to fight against Islamic State. “The overall effort will take time,” he added. “There will be challenges ahead.”

Perhaps the real challenge begins then, if that point is reached. It is then that the void left by this group will need to be filled, which presents a new set of challenges altogether.