Is The U.S. Legally Allowed to Strike Syria, and Did The Country Break Humanitarian Laws?

Right now, the U.S. and its allies are preparing to launch a missile strike against Syria. The countries' lightning-fast response to last week's chemical attack, apparently courtesy of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, implies that there's official procedure ready and waiting for when crimes like these — loosely termed "crimes against humanity" — occur.

But let's back up a second: what exactly counts as a crime against humanity in the international community these days? The attack in Syria left hundreds dead, was apparently a very deliberate attack on Syrian civilians by their own government, used prohibited weapons, and has even been termed a "genocide." It was a "moral obscenity," according to John Kerry, and media worldwide have labeled it a "breach of international humanitarian law." Except, what law?

Well, actually, there isn't one.

The phrase Kerry actually used was "violating international norms." If Syria had broken a law for which there is any precedent of international ramifications, the White House would have pointed to that instead. Instead, we just have a series of treaties, councils in which countries do and don't participate, and rules that countries do and don't stick to.

Syria was not a party in either of the two chemical and nuclear conventions of the past half-century, in which powers agreed to, basically, not attack one another using chemical or nuclear means. The post-Holocaust Nuremberg Trials, and the Geneva Conventions thereafter, established a precedent of "crimes against humanity:" in other words, powers educated themselves and one another on the importance of not letting any power get away with humanitarian crimes of that degree ever again. But the Conventions deal with war and war crimes — not "conflicts" like Syria.

And sure, the UN's charter allows the use of military violence when there exists a "threat to peace," but the phrase is murky and the consequences aren't clear. More to the point, the UN has never really stopped any diplomatic power from doing what it wants: Syria's president, if the allegations prove true, certainly didn't stop and consult the UN for ethical advice before unleashing a chemical poison. Which brings us to this uncomfortable fact: the UN has very little power outside of helping countries consult and compromise with one another. It couldn't stop Syria, and it won't stop the U.S. from intervening.

In fact, under UN rules, it's illegal for any power to launch a military strike without official UN approval. You know, like Obama may be expecting to do on Thursday (if Congress doesn't successfully stop him first). Kerry's term ("violating international norms") and Joe Biden's after him ("violating essential international norms") is a vague precedent for missile strikes because the legality of doing so is murky. There is no universally recognized, lawful basis for military intervention — and if there were, there would have been reason to invade Syria for much the last two years.

What separates Syria from civil conflicts and genocides like that in Sri Lanka, Somalia, and West New Guinea is not what Assad apparently did, but how he did it. Chemical weapons, much like nuclear weapons, pose an alarming risk to global health if their use become commonplace. It's illegal to have stockpiles of them, let alone use them, though we already know that up to 10 countries have them anyway.

Their use is only expressly prohibited for the countries that have agreed not to use them, but Syria wasn't one of them. It's likely, however, that America and its allies preparing to punitively strike Syria are keen to nip any incidence of chemical weaponry in the bud before the problem gets any bigger.