Western powers walk legal tightrope with Syria strikes

The United Nations has strict rules about the use of military force (AFP Photo/HECTOR RETAMAL) (AFP)

Paris (France) (AFP) - Britain, France and the US struck suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities Saturday in retaliation for a "clear violation" of international law, but experts warned they were on dubious legal ground themselves in carrying out the unilateral action.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the alleged use of chemicals last weekend in the rebel-held city of Douma was a blatant breach of several resolutions taken against Syria by the UN Security Council.

British Prime Minister Theresa May also called the strikes "right and legal", saying the international community would not tolerate the continued use of chemical weapons.

France says Syria has maintained a clandestine chemical arms programme since 2013 -- when Damascus ostensibly signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) -- which could encourage the use of such weapons by other repressive regimes.

In an analysis released Saturday, French intelligence services said "evidence collected" showed about 11 chemical attacks, mostly involving chlorine, since April 4, 2017, when sarin gas was used in Khan Sheikhoun.

That attack, which killed 88 people, sparked international outrage and prompted US President Donald Trump's first strikes against the Syrian regime.

"For us, a normalisation of chemical weapons use is a threat for our collective security that cannot go without a response," a source in Macron's office told AFP.

But Moscow, Syria's main backer in the seven-year civil war, immediately demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, saying the Western powers had violated "the UN charter and the norms and principles of international law".

Analysts agreed that in striking Syria without UN authorisation -- impossible given Russia's repeated vetoes on the Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France were relying instead on a nebulous concept of "legal morality".

"The violation of conventions doesn't give you the right to use force," said Francoise Saulnier, legal director at the Doctors Without Borders aid group, which has a long history of intervening in humanitarian crises.

Under UN rules, military force against a foreign power is allowed under just three conditions: legitimate self-defence, at the request of the country where it would occur, or in case of a Security Council authorisation.

- 'Smokescreen' -

Western officials are also insisting on the moral argument for action, saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be stopped from using particularly cruel and outlawed weapons.

"UN resolutions have been taken, and today we might be outside the framework of these resolutions, but we are within the framework of international law: This dictator is murdering his own people," Jean-Jacques Bridey, head of the French parliament's defence commission, said this past week.

But resorting to such arguments is risky, analysts say, since they could open the door to the unilateral use of force in any number of situations -- in particular by regimes who have already shown little regard for international law.

"Legal morality is an absolute trap, because what's moral for you isn't for me," said Didier Billion of France's Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

"What would give France and the US the right to bomb a state?" he said, dismissing their arguments as a "smokescreen".

For Patrick Baudouin, a lawyer with the International Federation for Human Rights in Paris, "it's breaking international law with the goal of ensuring it is respected."

"It's the idea that there is some sort of international humanitarian law based on a 'responsibility to protect'. But this isn't something laid down in international law."

Saulnier at Doctors Without Borders agreed that such notions were "empty concepts" that could backfire.

"What's dangerous is that the West, already waging a war against non-state actors in Syria, is risking an escalation toward international conflict in order to potentially get back to the negotiating table" for ending the seven-year civil war, she said.

But by trying to get around the established rules on using force, "we're liquidating the legal structures built since World War II," Saulnier said, warning of a return to "gunboat diplomacy".