Can Obama Bomb Syria? The Legality of a Unilateral U.S. Strike


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Could President Obama legally order bombing of Syria for the use of chemical weapons? Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Could President Obama legally order bombing of Syria for the use of chemical weapons? Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy

The situation between the West and Syria is in a state of flux. At the time of this writing, the United Kingdom has voted not to begin a war, however limited, against Syria.

The United States has not sought a United Nations resolution to authorize any action against the Middle East country and so if the U.S. proceeds, it will be by unilateral action, with or without a coalition of the willing that now appears to be just France.

Unlike U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama has not sought approval from the legislative branch of his government. This raises the question of whether action taken against Syria at this time is constitutional and legal without the authorization of Congress.

Obama’s ‘Red Line’ on Syria

A little over a year ago, the president stated any use of chemical weapons by the government in Syria’s civil war would constitute the crossing of a “red line,” opening up the country to a military response by the U.S. and possibly other Western countries.

Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. This would change my calculus. That would change my equation…We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”

On August 21, 2013, intelligence showed hundreds of Syrians were killed in a chemical weapons attack. While Assad may have launched the attack, there is no conclusive evidence this is so. While there is little doubt innocent civilians died as a result of poison gas, a weapon of mass destruction, the possibility is open that the weapons were used by rebel forces or by persons in the Syrian government but without the authorization of Assad.

After some hemming and hawing, the president announced that some form of action will be taken against the Assad regime, most likely the limited firing of cruise missiles into the country.

Britain: No, Germany: No, France: Yes

It appears at this time, a coalition of the willing will be formed with at least France ready to partake in some action against Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron was an eager participant in an action Obama described as “firing a shot across the bow.” But before proceeding, Cameron recalled the House of Commons back from their summer vacation to vote upon the issue.

On August 29, 2013, the British House of Commons voted 285-272 against the use of force, if necessary, against Syria. The 13 vote majority was achieved after several MPs from Cameron’s Conservative Party voted with the opposition against the motion.

A disappointed Cameron, who had already sent fighter jets to the area, said he would accept the will of Parliament, and Britain will not join the United States in any proposed military action.

Germany had already advised the country will not participate in any action against Assad unless it had been first sanctioned by the United Nations. That leaves only France.

After the vote in the U.K., French president Francois Hollande said his country is still willing to become involved and join the United States. Hollande believes a military operation will begin by next Wednesday, September 4.

Obama Bypasses United Nations

Unlike George W. Bush, Obama did not seek authorization from the UN Security Council to take action against Syria. Other than the excuse that his UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, seems to be MIA, going to the Security Council would have been futile. Both Russia and China have the power to veto Security Council decisions, and it is clear they would have vetoed any attempted action against Syria.

This leaves the U.S. to go it alone or with the support of France. So the following questions are raised. When is it legal under international law to proceed without Security Council approval, and when can the president take military action without the approval of Congress?

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