The attack on Syria

by the US, UK & France was



The prohibition on the use of force by one state against another is one of the most fundamental principles of international law.  It is set out in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which states:


“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state … .


The UN Charter recognises two exceptions to this fundamental prohibition on the use of force.  The first is the right of self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter in the face of an armed attack.  The other exception is if the use of force has been authorised by the Security Council under Article 42 in Chapter VII of the Charter.


The use of force in any other circumstance constitutes aggression contrary to Article 2.4 of the UN Charter.


On 14 April 2018, the UK engaged in military action against Syria in alliance with the US and France.  Together, they fired 105 missiles against targets in Syria.  This action was not carried out in self-defence in response to Syrian aggression, nor was it authorised by the Security Council.  So, it constitutes aggression against Syria contrary to Article 2.4 of the UN Charter.



Oliver Miles: Is it legal?


Lest there be any doubt about this, here’s what former UK Ambassador Oliver Miles had to say about the action shortly after it took place:


Before launching an operation of this kind, you have to pass three tests.  The first test is: is it legal?  The second is: is it effective?  And the third test is: what are the political consequences?


“It fails on the first test, because I don’t think it’s legal.  I think that the Prime Minister and the Government, and the other Governments concerned, have failed to address [the fact] that the Charter of the United Nations is very clear that military action of this kind can only be undertaken in two circumstances, either in self-defence, which clearly this was not, or with the authority of the Security Council, which they did not have. 


“The Government, and the other Governments concerned, have stressed very rightly the importance of strengthening the taboo on use of chemical weapons, but the trouble is that in pursuing that objective they’ve weakened the intermission – the ban – on aggressive war.”


President Putin was not wrong when he described the airstrikes on Syria by the US, UK and France as: “an act of aggression against a sovereign state … without a mandate from the UN Security Council and in violation of the UN Charter and norms and principles of international law”.


This aggression was supported by the EU.  Since EU foreign policy decisions require unanimity amongst EU members, this means that all 28 EU states support a fundamental breach of the UN Charter by the US and two of its own members.



May justifies use of force


Prime Minister May justified this use of force on humanitarian grounds in a statement on 14 April.  It was taken, she said, in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government in Douma on 7 April 2018, which killed “up to 75” civilians.  Its purpose was to “protect innocent people in Syria from the horrific deaths and casualties caused by chemical weapons” and, to that end, it consisted of “targeted strikes to degrade the Syrian Regime’s chemical weapons capability and deter their use” in future.


The Government published a paper Syria action – UK government legal position, which attempted to argue that this use of force was legal under international law.  It asserted that:


The UK is permitted under international law, on an exceptional basis, to take measures in order to alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering.”


Understandably, the paper made no mention whatsoever of the UN Charter, since there is no provision in the UN Charter which permits military action on humanitarian grounds without specific authorisation by the Security Council.  Without that, military action against another state is aggression in breach of the UN Charter unless it is taken in self-defence.



Russia seeking to undermine “the international rules-based system”?


In recent years, the accusation that Russia is seeking to undermine “the international rules-based system” has become a mantra for the British Government and its supporters.  For example, in the wake of the nerve gas attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Prime Minister May told the House of Commons on 26 March 2018:


“This act against our country is the latest in a pattern of increasingly aggressive Russian behaviour, attacking the international rules-based system across our continent and beyond.”


The Prime Minister didn’t make clear what she means by “the international rules-based system”, but the UN system, and the rules specified in the UN Charter, must be at the heart of it.  It is ironic therefore that a few weeks later Britain should drive a cart and horses through the UN Charter by taking military action without Security Council authorisation against a sovereign state that hasn’t attacked it.



The Russian veto


The Prime Minister inferred that efforts to sanction Syria in any other way for its alleged use of chemical weapons were “repeatedly thwarted” by Russia applying, or threating to apply, its veto in the Security Council.


Like it or like it not, the “international rules-based system” involves Russia having a veto in the Security Council, along with the other four permanent members: China, France, the UK and the US (see Articles 23 and 27 of the UN Charter).  Russia’s status as a veto-wielding permanent member is a reflection of its outstanding contribution to the defeat of fascism in Europe in WWII.


What is more, it is impossible to take the veto away from Russia, or any of the other permanent members – because amending the UN Charter requires the support of all five permanent members (see Article 108 of the UN Charter). 


So, in practice defending the “international rules-based system” involves accepting that Russia will always have a veto on the Security Council, the body which, according to Article 24 of the UN Charter, has “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”.


It is not insignificant that each of the three states which took military action against Syria on 14 April have a veto in the Security Council.  They are in a position to engage in aggression against other states, as and when they like, without fear of being sanctioned by the Council for doing so, since they can veto any resolution critical of them proposed in the Council.



Did a chemical weapons attack take place?


But, did a chemical weapons attack actually take place in Douma on 7 April?   All the Prime Minister has to say about the alleged attack in her statement of 14 April is that “a significant body of information including intelligence indicates the Syrian Regime is responsible for this latest attack”.  This “indication” of the Syrian Government’s responsibility was sufficient for the Prime Minister to authorise the use of force and to put it into effect.  For reasons that can only be guessed at, the execution couldn’t be delayed to give the OPCW inspectors (who were already on the ground in Damascus) sufficient time to gather information and make a judgment about what actually happened in Douma.


Did the Syrian Government really mount such a chemical weapons attack against civilians at this time when it is coming close to defeating the armed opposition?  Such an attack was absolutely certain to provoke a military response from President Trump, since an alleged attack a year ago at Khan Sheikhoun had done so.


On that occasion, President Trump authorised the firing of 59 cruise missiles at a single target, namely, the Syrian air base from which the attack was said to have been launched.  Damage to Syria’s military capabilities was limited.  However, another chemical weapons attack was likely to lead to a more extensive US onslaught against Syria’s military infrastructure, which might undermine the Syria Government’s ability to finally defeat the armed opposition.


Why on earth would President Assad risk that outcome by using chemical weapons against civilians in an attack of little or no military value?



Lord West has doubts


As Lord West, former First Sea Lord and Chief of Defence Intelligence, pointed out in a BBC interview on 16 April:


“President Assad is in the process of winning this civil war. And he was about to take over and occupy Douma, all that area. He’d had a long, long, hard slog, slowly capturing that whole area of the city. And then, just before he goes in and takes it all over, apparently he decides to have a chemical attack. It just doesn't ring true.


“It seems extraordinary, because clearly he would know that there’s likely to be a response from the allies – what benefit is there for his military? Most of the rebel fighters, this disparate group of Islamists, had withdrawn; there were a few women and children left around. What benefit was there militarily in doing what he did? I find that extraordinary. Whereas we know that, in the past, some of the Islamic groups have used chemicals [see here], and of course there would be huge benefit in them labelling an attack as coming from Assad, because they would guess, quite rightly, that there’d be a response from the US, as there was last time, and possibly from the UK and France ...”



Little more than a gesture


In fact, the military response from the US, UK and France turned out to be little more than a gesture.  This was because the US military accepted that missile strikes against military targets that might lead to Russian casualties had to be avoided, lest the Russians respond by striking the sources of the missiles, as they had warned in advance they might do.  As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explained afterwards, the US military was informed “where [the Russian] red lines are, including red lines on the ground, geographically” and “the results show that they did not cross these red lines”.


So, instead of striking significant military targets, three sites associated in the past with Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities were chosen – a research centre in Barzeh near Damascus and two weapons storage centres near Homs.  On the face of it, this choice was appropriate given that the military action was, in the Prime Minister’s words, “to degrade the Syrian Regime’s chemical weapons capability”.  But would these sites have been attacked if it was really thought that significant quantities of chemical weapons were stored there, given the risk to civilians nearby from toxic chemicals? 


Syria became a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention on 14 October 2013 and, as required by the Convention formally agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stocks and production facilities.  On 4 January 2016, the OPCW announced that all chemical weapons declared to it by Syria had been destroyed.


If Syria did not declare all its stocks to the OPCW (as the US and its allies claim), then it is highly unlikely that the undeclared stocks would be kept in known storage sites and be open to destruction from the air.  A few months earlier, on 22 November 2017, the OPCW inspected the Barzeh site and didn’t discover any banned chemicals or “observe any activities inconsistent with obligations under the Convention”.  Likely, the US and its co-aggressors didn’t expect to destroy any chemical weapons at these sites – there have been no reports that they did – but it made sense to target these sites in order to put a humanitarian face on the aggression.



Mainstream media turn a blind eye


The mainstream media in Britain have, almost without exception, accepted without question the Government’s narrative that the Syrian Government used chemical weapons against civilians in Douma on 7 April – and they have turned a blind eye to the growing body of evidence which suggests that there wasn’t a chemical weapons attack at all, which the Syrian and Russian Governments have claimed from the outset. 


Remarkably few Western journalists have visited Douma to see for themselves.  An exception to this was Robert Fisk, who has reported from the Middle East for over forty years (and is an Arabic speaker).  Here is an extract from his account published in the Independent on 17 April of his conversation with Dr Assim Rahaibani, a senior doctor in the clinic where victims of the alleged chemical attack were brought for treatment.  Dr Rahaibani told Fisk what had happened on that occasion:


“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet’, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”


Fisk walked freely around Douma talking to people he met but he encountered nobody who knew of a “gas” attack on 7 April.  An American journalist, Pearson Sharp, from the One America News Network, had a similar experience: on 16 April he reported:


“Not one of the people that I spoke to in that neighbourhood said that they had seen anything, or heard anything, about a chemical attack on that day... they didn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary.”


Russia Today has broadcast several interviews with paramedics from the clinic and with an 11-year old boy describing how he was roped into the making of the video by the White Helmets (see Interview with boy in Douma video raises more doubts over ‘chem attack’, 19 April).  It has also broadcast the proceedings of a news conference organised at The Hague by the Russian Ambassador to the OPCW, when 17 doctors and paramedics, brought from Syria by Russia, testified to a complete absence of chemical weapons or victims at the clinic (see No attack, no victims, no chem weapons: Douma witnesses speak at OPCW briefing at The Hague, 26 April).

This evidence from Robert Fisk and Pearson Sharp, together with the witness testimony broadcast by Russia Today, is close to definitive proof that there was no chemical weapons attack in Douma on 7 April.


David Morrison

3 May 2018