Are Airstrikes Against Syria Even Legal?

The U.S. began airstrikes in Syria Monday night, with several Arab allies joining in the massively-expanded campaign. Leaders in both Russia and Iran have criticized the Obama administration's action, saying that the airstrikes violate international law. While the legal gray spaces are still being filled in, the administration has rushed to its own defense.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar joined the U.S. in its expanded airstrikes, which have hit multiple targets in northern and eastern parts of the country. The State Department said that Syria was informed before the attacks, but that the U.S. did not receive permission to execute the strikes on ISIS and al-Qaeda- affiliated Khorasan targets.

Though Syria was told airstrikes were approaching, they were not given information about specific targets or location. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Tuesday:

We warned Syria not to engage U.S. aircraft. We did not request the regime’s permission. We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government.

Unless it's an issue of self-defense, international law dictates that a country must gain permission from the intended target country or the United Nations before using force. Before the attacks Monday night, the United States had neither. So, was this airstrike legal?

What the White House says

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While there has been no domestic threat to the U.S., the White House is claiming that it entered into the airstrikes in the collective self-defense of Iraq. This is a viable defense under international law, according to international lawyer Sarah Knuckey, who spoke with Vanity Fair.

Senior Obama administration officials said that because ISIS had attacked Iraq from Syria with no intervention from the Iraqi government, that collective self-defense justified the airstrikes. The officials also said that Iraq had asked for U.S. assistance in protecting itself from attacks.

A letter explaining the White House's actions is expected to be submitted to the United Nations on Tuesday.

... but outside the White House, it's unclear

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Iran and the U.S. have had issues working together to stop ISIS, to say the least. So it was no surprise that Iran's President Hassan Rouhani spoke out against the airstrikes, joining its ally Russia in calling them illegal. He criticized U.S. foreign policy, saying that at once opposing the militants and training them to overthrow the government of Syria's President Bashar Assad was a confusing diplomatic move.

Rouhani said the move was "clearly nebulous and ambiguous at best," and added, "I can assure you this will not succeed in the end."

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