Are attacks by Super-Powers always considered legitimate?

Legitimacy refers to, “an acceptable actor, acting in an acceptable way, although there is no exclusive origin for legitimacy in global politics. In China for example, during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), the legitimacy of a ruler or government originated from the Mandate of Heaven. At the time, if rulers were unjust they would lose that mandate, thus the right to rule the people. Consequently, the most rational source for legitimacy is democracy, since the power lies in the hands of the people. In this article, the legitimacy of the intervention of France, the UK and the USA in Syria, on the 7thof April 2018 will be put into question, by focusing upon the question of humanitarian aid, the proportion of the intervention, the past actions of the Assad regime, the lack of proof to support the intervention and the infringement of Syrian sovereignty.

The intervention of these three nations occurred in the night of 7thof April 2018, with air strikes on three different sites. One of these sites included a Research Centre in Barzeh, a  facility believed to be developing chemical weapons. American president Donald Trump stated that these attacks were a reaction to the chemical weapons used by Assad earlier this month. Thus, this attack can be said to be legitimate as it provided Humanitarian aid to the Syrian civilians against the actions of their government. The responsibility to protect conceived in 2006 by the UN 2005 World Summit, urges the international community to assume the responsibility to protect people when their human rights are being violated. With the chemical weapons attack, Assad was infringing article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” as many did suffer injuries or die. Furthermore, Assad was also infringing international law, specifically, the chemical weapons convention of 1968, which makes the use of these illegal. On this basis, the intervention was legally legitimate.

In contrast, there is no physical proof that chemical weapons were in fact used earlier this month by Assad. The proof given to the public was a series of videos posted on social media of Syrians in pain and getting hosed down in order to wipe away some kind of substance from their skin. However, Vladimir Putin has given a statement asserting that Russian forces have investigated Douma, where the chemical weapons were used, and that they found no residue of toxic chemicals. Therefore, this attack could be illegitimate as there wasn’t enough proof. The videos posted on social media could have been faked or from a previous chemical attack. It could also be said that the involvement of the tree western nations was too early, as there was no formal statement from the OPCW (the organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons). Moreover, this would not be the first time that western nations intervened in the middle east wrongfully making the intervention possibly illegitimate.

Nevertheless, the supposed lack of proof is debatable. In August 2013 Assad used chemical weapons in Ghouta where it was estimated that around 1000 people died. Thus, for France, the UK and the USA, having the video of the civilians in pain from  chemical weapons on social media did not seem an unlikely action for the Assad regime. Moreover, Douma is an area in Syria believed to have several rebel groups or militias and the last time chemical weapons were used, Bashar al-Assad claimed it was for self-defence against militias and rebel groups. Consequently, the lack of proof for this intervention could be discounted as chemical weapon attacks have been carried out before by this regime.

Fourthly, this intervention could be described as legitimate due to the proportionality of the air strikes. The chemical weapons attack in Douma which triggered the air raid was a single event in which it was reported that around 70 people died. Similarly, the air strikes by the western powers were all on one night and so far there were no deaths reported. Subsequently, this intervention could be said to be legitimate as was a proportionate response President Assad’s attack. Possibly, this could be a threat from the West to Assad: the West will only attack to the proportions he will, so if Bashar al-Assad strikes back the west will also.

On the other hand, this intervention could be seen as illegitimate as it violates Syrian sovereignty. President Bashar al-Assad has been in Office since 2000 and since 2011 he has been fighting a civil war. According to international law, a state can only intervene in this civil war for self-defence, to provide humanitarian aid or if it was invited by the state at war. Neither the USA, France or the UK were invited to this civil war or are acting based on self-defence. Thus, they are violating Syrian airspace, cities and civilians sovereignty. Moreover, they are disrupting Syrian sovereignty for another reason. By acting multilaterally without the approval of the UN Security Council, making this intervention not only illegitimate but also illegal under international law.

Finally, the most equitable source of legitimacy is democracy, which could make this intervention relatively more legitimate. The air strikes were carried out by three democratic, or theoretically democratic, nations against Syria, which is led by an authoritarian ruler. Additionally, France, the UK and the USA are permanent members of the security council making them even more legitimate nations from the perspective of the international community.

Concluding, knowing that legitimacy refers to “an acceptable actor acting in an acceptable way”, the intervention by the USA, the UK and France in Syria could be considered somewhat legitimate. Its legitimacy stems from the fact that there was a clear lack of human rights in Syria, even before these air strikes, that the scale of the attack was of similar proportions to the Syrian state’s assault against its people and because legitimacy is derived from democracy and France, the UK and the USA are three democratic states fighting an undemocratic one. However, this intervention was not carried out correctly, as there still isn’t enough proof to support the claim that chemical attacks occurred on the 7thof April 2018 in Douma. Moreover, the three retaliating states violated international law by attacking without the approval of the Security Council and clearly violated Syrian sovereignty. With such immediate actions, it could be argued that the real reason for this attack was to promote western influence in the Middle East due to the hegemonic struggle between the West and Russia or the Assad regime.

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