What Are the Rules of War?


President Barack Obama has indicated this week he will consult international law before responding to the gas attacks in Syria, but experts say any U.S. military strike against the regime of Bashir al-Assad would violate the very same laws.

These laws of war go back to the early 20th century and govern who gets to start a war and how they are to be waged. But they are often stretched by leaders who need them to pursue their own political goals or perceived security interests.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton cited humanitarian reasons and in particular, a massacre of 45 people in Kosovo, for a NATO-led bombing campaign of Serbia that did not have the support of the United Nations. The perpetrators of the massacre were believed to be Serbian, but there has been dispute since then about what really happened in the village.

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In 2003, President George W. Bush claimed Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction -- including chemical weapons -- as justification for attacking Iraq. He sent then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to convince the body to act. The U.N. didn’t, and the United States invaded anyway. Later, the weapons claims were disproven by the president’s own Central Intelligence Agency.

The United Nations Charter forbids countries to attack each other unless in self-defense or if authorized by a vote of the U.N. Security Council. That happened in 2011, when the council agreed to allow air strikes against Libyan government forces to protect a potential massacre of civilians in Benghazi.

The United States claimed self-defense in invading Afghanistan to hunt for the Al-Qaeda operatives responsible for the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York.

President Obama is a constitutional lawyer, and likely will be looking at these past cases. But experts say he doesn’t have much of a legal leg to stand on.

“As of now there is no legal justification for an attack,” said Michael Shank, director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and professor of conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University. “The only way that you can use international law to justify an attack on Syria is if the U.N. Security Council votes in favor.”

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