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Legality Aside, International Community Accepts Syrian Airstrikes

The first U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State strongholds in Syria Monday triggered a quiet hum from the international community, even though the bombing was launched without an invitation from the Syrian government. The lack of uproar could signal an acceptance of President Barack Obama’s use of Article 51 in the United Nations charter to justify ...

AP Photo
AP Photo

The first U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State strongholds in Syria Monday triggered a quiet hum from the international community, even though the bombing was launched without an invitation from the Syrian government.

The lack of uproar could signal an acceptance of President Barack Obama’s use of Article 51 in the United Nations charter to justify the attacks, which excuses him from requesting permission only if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is unwilling or unable to confront the ISIS threat. 

The strikes, which attacked ISIS positions in Raqqa, a small city in north-central Syria, were conducted by a coalition of forces from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power defended the attacks in a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday.

"The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe havens effectively itself," the letter reads. "Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing ISIL threat to Iraq, including by protecting Iraqi citizens from further attacks and by enabling Iraqi forces to regain control of Iraq’s borders," she wrote, using one of the Islamic State’s acronyms.

Power may have specifically referenced Iraq because of the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution that gives the president authority to intervene militarily in Iraq. As for the attacks targeting the Khorasan Group, an al Qaeda splinter group in Syria, a senior administration official said the threat they posed was also strong enough to validate an attack against them.

"Strikes against the Khorasan Group were taken by the United States, in U.S. national self-defense, because of the imminent attack plotting against U.S. and Western interests," the official said. "Intelligence indicated that these operatives were nearing the execution phase for an attack in Europe or the United States, which is why we needed to take decisive action against them."

Obama also sent a letter to Congress on Tuesday, informing lawmakers of the strikes in order to remain consistent with the War Powers Act, which requires him to update Congress each time he orders military action.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is one of two congressional delegates to the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York this week, said in an interview that there was consensus at all the forums he attended on Tuesday that American intervention is necessary to combat the rising threat of the Islamic State, or ISIS.

"Extreme violence and this terrorist-led activity is an existential threat to so many states in the Arab world and a real threat to Americans and the West that people realize it has to be dealt with," he said. "I haven’t heard any talk that the United States is overstepping its bounds, and the world is welcoming American leadership."

Earlier this month, Russian officials made clear they rebuke any offensive in Syria without explicit permission from Assad, calling the possibility a "gross violation of international law." But other than a quick comment from the Russian foreign ministry, even their lips were zipped Tuesday, likely because the areas targeted are no longer controlled by the Syrian government and will actually benefit Assad, a Russian ally, if they successfully drive out ISIS.

Daniel Byman, director of research and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said that even Moscow probably won’t speak up as the strikes continue because pushing the issue won’t benefit it politically.

"Russia may make that claim but is not going to hark on it because Russia wants to see the United States intervening against ISIS," he said. "It’s worried about the radicalizing spreading itself and the U.S. is attacking the enemies of the Assad regime, which is Russia’s ally, from their view."

The rapid growth and wide scope of the Islamic State’s threat have helped Obama garner support and get other nations on board, which was evident in the Arab coalition that participated in the strikes on Monday. Speaking before the U.N. Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said ISIS threatens the region’s stability and the West’s safety.

"We have been very clear from the beginning: We will not allow geography or borders to prevent us from taking action against ISIL." 

Elias Groll and Shane Harris contributed to this report.

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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