UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2249, aimed at rallying the world behind the fairly obvious notion that ISIS is an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security.”

“It’s a call to action to member states that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures against (ISIS) and other terrorist groups,” British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters.

There are a lot of laws that seek to govern and prevent wars, but the Western nations looking to launch airstrikes in Syria have made things easy for us – they have cited the law that they believe justifies their military intervention: specifically, Article 51 of the UN Charter. It reads, in part:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.

So doesn’t France, for instance, enjoy the inherent right to bomb ISIS targets in Syria as an act of self-defense – in order to prevent further attacks?

And don’t members of the US-led coalition, who cite the “collective self-defense” of Iraq (the Iraqi government has formally made this request), have the right to prevent further ISIS attacks from Syrian territory into Iraqi areas?

Well, no. Article 51, as conceived in the UN Charter, refers to attacks between territorial states, not with non-state actors like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Syria, after all, did not attack France or Iraq – or Turkey, Australia, Jordan or Saudi Arabia.

Ostensibly, Syria is ‘unable’ to sufficiently degrade or destroy ISIS because, as we can clearly see, ISIS controls a significant amount of territory within Syria’s borders that its national army has not been able to reclaim.

This made some sense – until September 30 when Russia entered the Syrian military theater and began to launch widespread airstrikes against terrorist targets inside Syria.

As a major global military power, Russia is clearly ‘able’ to thwart ISIS –certainly just as well as most of the Western NATO states participating in airstrikes already. Moreover, as Russia is operating there due to a direct Syrian government appeal for assistance, the Russian military role in Syria is perfectly legal.

This development struck a blow at the US-led coalition’s legal justification for strikes in Syria. Not that the coalition’s actions were ever legal – “unwilling and unable” is merely a theory and has no basis in customary international law.

About this new Russian role, Major Patrick Walsh, associate professor in the International and Operational Law Department at the US Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Virginia, says:

The United States and others who are acting in collective defense of Iraq and Turkey are in a precarious position. The international community is calling on Russia to stop attacking rebel groups and start attacking ISIS. But if Russia does, and if the Assad government commits to preventing ISIS from attacking Syria’s neighbors and delivers on that commitment, then the unwilling or unable theory for intervention in Syria would no longer apply. Nations would be unable to legally intervene inside Syria against ISIS without the Assad government’s consent.

From “the dictator is killing his own people” to the “regime is using chemical weapons” to the need to establish “No Fly Zones” to safeguard “refugees fleeing Assad”…propaganda has been liberally used to build the justification for foreign military intervention.

Article 2 of the UN Charter states, in part:

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, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

It’s hard to see how Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity has not been systematically violated throughout the nearly five years of this conflict, by the very states that make up the US-led coalition. The US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the UAE and other nations have poured weapons, funds, troops and assistance into undermining a UN member state at every turn.

Why than does it always seem the US and NATO allies are always exempt from international laws when it comes to interventions?

  • 11
    "Why than does it always seem the US and NATO allies are always exempt from international laws when it comes to interventions?" Every nation is technically exempt from international law as there is no world government which has ultimate sovereignty over the nations; international laws are treaties, and at the end of the day the nations are sovereign and can withdraw or ignore them at will.
    – Andy
    May 25, 2017 at 22:11
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    So Assad's use of chemical weapons, Iran and Russia's intervention in Syria to maintain dictatorship and drive a refugee crisis or support Isis is fine, but Western states intervention on behalf of the Syrian people is illegal? Reading questions like yours you'd think Syria is this united nation that the US is picking on. Syria was in a civil war, trying to overthrow an unpopular dictator. Many Syrians wanted the US's intervention.
    – userLTK
    Nov 30, 2017 at 22:43
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    @userLTK -Well, let's not be so sunny about the motivations of the US and their allies here. They've got their realpolitik considerations just like the rest. I think eliminating ISIS, which is a domestic terrorism threat, supporting their ally Iraq, and possibly depriving Russia of an ally in the region are higher on their list than trying to help the Syrian people. I'm not saying that no one has that motivations - but it's not high on the list of things driving policy.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 22, 2019 at 22:44
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    @UserLTK, What legal right does the US have for invading a sovereign nation that posed no direct threat? Article 51, Chapter VII of the UN Charter, states have the right to mobilize their military forces in self-defense if they are attacked. You do know the US also bombed Kunduz hospital in Afghanistan in 2015? This is just another case of the kettle calling the pot black.
    – Noah
    Mar 23, 2019 at 14:27
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    @userLTK Yes, IT IS fine. What problem you have with intervention by countries that were officially invited to intervene? That they're not your beloved Western masters? Jun 2, 2020 at 14:28

2 Answers 2


Historically, United Nations never had any chances to interfiere the will of United States or any of their allies. Syria is not an isolated case and we need to see two examples about the US behavior in the foreign policy to understand this point of view:

  • Cuba's embargo: Since 1992, every year, the United Nations (specifically the General Assembly) approves a resolution condemning the embargo; however, United States never obey these resolutions. What Obama did is open the negotiation channel but to have (again) a diplomatic relation as we know in the international relations field, there are some steps to be done.

  • Iraq's war: In the legal point of view, Iraq's invasion was illegal because the decision was made unilaterally and not the Security Council. In the words of Kofi Annan, General Secretary of the UN in those times:

Yes, if you wish. I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal.

With these two examples, I want to show that they acted (and they're currently acting) illegally but the main reason they don't receive (US and allies) any condemn is because the Kissinger's doctrine:

Politics always triumphs over justice.

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    Law is not the same thing as justice.
    – Brilliand
    Apr 10, 2017 at 22:31
  • 3
    @Andy international treaties such as UN charter are part of the legal system of the member nations (in Russia for instance, international treaties have precedence over federal laws except the constitution, in the US AFAIK the treaties have the same weight as federal laws).
    – Anixx
    Jun 14, 2017 at 6:30
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    @Andy the UN charter is a treaty that requires the parties to abide the UN Security Council resolutions. The General Assembly decisions are not binding though.
    – Anixx
    Jun 15, 2017 at 0:16
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    @Andy international treaties are not needed to be imported into the law. They are the law when they are ratified and signed. In Russian constitution, Article 15, part 4: "If international treaty sets up different provisions than the federal law, then the provisions of the international treaty apply". The same in constitution of Belarus and many other countries.
    – Anixx
    Jun 15, 2017 at 0:22
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    @Andy the UN charter itself forbids interventions and wars unless approved by UN SC. If there were no resolutions, the invasion is illegal per UN Charter (unless in self-defense). The UN Charter is retified. No sanction the UN can impose on a permanent SC member. But this does not make its actions legal the does not make starting a war not a crime against humanity. Perfectly, the national law enfiorcement should take action and imprison those who started such war.
    – Anixx
    Jun 15, 2017 at 10:06

The problem with international law is, that the leader of a country have to ratify and validate it. No country is or will be forced to ratify a treaty. But if a country didn't sign a treaty it is not bound to it; it's more or less voluntary. And even if a country has signed a treaty, it is no assurance that the country (or every future leadership) will uphold it's commitments.

Of course other countries can inflict sanctions or resolutions against a country that has broken international law. But since the UN is a democratic institution, there are ways to inhibit intended punishments (via veto for example). Additionally every country is free to terminate a treaty or deny the signing. In my (subjective) opinion, a lot of countries take international law more as a recommendation than binding law.

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    UN is Not a democratic institution
    – user 1
    Jul 21, 2016 at 14:35
  • 1
    Sorry I expressed myself wrong. It's an institution that upholds and defend democratic principles. But I think it is working on democratic principles too (decisions are discussed, each member of the security council has a vote and it has veto powers to block decisions). Also it's charter starts with "We the people" if I recall correctly.
    – BobbyPi
    Jul 21, 2016 at 16:47
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    member of the security council dont elected democratically. 5 of them (which has veto power) are permanent. these are permanent members By force.
    – user 1
    Jul 22, 2016 at 5:27
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    @BobbyPi China is one of the major players in the UN. They're a totalitarian dictatorship that subjugates their population. The purpose of the UN is an established international channel for diplomacy, arbitration, and governance. Aug 23, 2016 at 13:49
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    @BobbyPi The purpose of the UN is to try and get countries to talk things out instead of going to war, and if that fails hopefully get enough other members to force a misbehaving country to knock it off.
    – Andy
    May 25, 2017 at 22:17

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