The legal base for the UK’s military engagement in Syria is founded according to the written briefing I received last week on the Iraqi right to self defence against ISIS.
The UK government is always stressing that when it comes to attacking ISIS the Iraqi/Syrian frontier is of no relevance, because ISIS do not recognise it and operate from both sides of that frontier. In other ways, of course, the border is important. It does represent the line that segregates those who live under the government of Iraq from those who live under the chaos of Syria.
The UK government has been invited in by the government of Iraq to help it destroy the ISIS insurgency in that country. Iraq has a right to use lethal force in self defence against the ISIS insurgency. The fact that ISIS moves across into Syria and can finance and support its Iraqi operations from Syria extends the UK’ s right to assist Iraq in its plea of self defence by taking action in Syria as well. Will the same extend us into Libya where ISIS are also active? The Uk government also argues with its US and French allies that its position in attacking ISIS has been confirmed by the general words of the UN resolution asking member states to use all means against ISIS, though they did not base their legal case on this. The Russians, allies of Assad in Syria, confirm or accept the rights of the Coalition forces to attack ISIS in Syria. Russia presumably bases its intervention on Syria’s right to self defence against ISIS, as they co-operate with the Syrian regime. Assad, leading the official government of Syria, does not accept the legality of the Coalition action. He sees it as a violation of Syrian sovereign territory, but is himself visibly unable to police or control large parts of the country.
The issue of what is a just war is sometimes easy, sometimes complex. Two recent UK wars that I wholeheartedly supported were the war to liberate the Falklands Islands from illegal invasion and occupation by the Argentinians, and the UK’s participation in the coalition force to liberate Kuwait. In both cases sovereign territory had been invaded by a hostile outsider. In both cases the settled population in the violated state wanted to be liberated. The moral and legal cases were overwhelmingly clear for our military action.
Our other interventions in the Middle East have been more complex. They have sought to prevent mass slaughter by local tyrants, to prevent extremist insurgencies taking over large areas of distressed states, and to support forces within those states that seek more moderate and democratic government. The West’s governments claim that all have been well intentioned. In each situation a legal basis for military action was part of the argument for intervention. None have been to gain territory for the West, all have been to influence the personnel and style of government in Middle Eastern countries and territories. Others claim that these interventions have been unhelpful. Critics of the West have sometimes argued they have been illegal.