Headlines about Britain’s involvement against ISIS have been splashed across newspapers as it emerged that British forces have been active in Syria, with this involvement shown to exist by the Ministry of Defence who yesterday confirmed that Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan had both been killed by British air-strikes in Syria. Although there remains an ethical debate around whether this is a role for drones in modern warfare, I believe that the issue around British involvement in Syria is fairly clear-cut: Britain has broken international law.
In 2003 Britain along with other Western nations took it upon themselves to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. What this did, despite being universally condemned as a catastrophic failure and an illegal war, was set a precedent that allowed Western nations to illegally invade countries without fear of legal repercussions. However, although it could be accurately argued that ISIS presents more of a threat to the UK than Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the actual legal basis for British involvement in Syria is not only ‘shaky’, it’s non-existent.
According to international law Britain was legally allowed to attack ISIS in Iraq as the then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and current PM Haider al-Abadi had called on assistance to attack ISIS. Because the Iraqi government had given permission to foreign nations to be in their territory Britain was able to become part of the NATO-led coalition against ISIS. However this doesn’t extend to fighting ISIS in Syria because Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad hasn’t requested support in fighting ISIS in the civil war he is currently engaged in; although the Syrian leadership has been condemned by the United Nations on many occasions, they remain a sovereign member of the organisation and as a consequence British involvement in the Syrian Civil War has no legal basis in this first regard.
The only other way in which Britain and its allies could attack ISIS in Syria is if a motion was passed by the United Nations Security Council and a UN coalition was established as has happened in the past with the Korean War and the First Gulf War. Britain has openly admitted that it has taken part in military action in Syria which both violates the United Nations Charter and the will of the British Parliament which voted not to intervene in Syria in 2013. With no UNSC resolution passed to militarily fight against ISIS and no invitation to Western countries to take part in the Syrian Civil War from the Assad regime, Britain, I believe, has no legal grounds on which to be military involved in Syria.
The justification that Britain is using is stretching the definitions of what constitutes an attack on a country; if questioned any member of the government or MP that supports intervention will say that Britain has been attacked because of the ISIS-inspired attacks on British tourists in Tunisia and the brutal execution of aid worker Alan Henning, along with other attacks on Britain’s allies. This is in itself questionable as, although the attack occurred in Tunisia and targeted Europeans, Britain as an entity was not attacked; if Britain had been bombed by ISIS like on 7th July 2005, according to international law Britain would be legally entitled to retaliate but this was not the case with any of the attacks of which ISIS have claimed responsibility. By redefining an attack on a nation-state as an attack on the citizens of that nation-state, there are some legal complexities that arise as a result.
For example, Ruhul Amin, one of the two jihadis killed by the latest British drone strike in Syria was born in Wales, thus making him a British citizen; it would therefore follow that if Britain has redefined an attack on the country as an attack on its people, Britain has just declared war on itself. Obviously this is a ludicrous situation because Britain can’t declare war on itself, but the question remains whether Britain has a right to legal kill it’s own citizens without a trial; being a terrorist would make such a trial a foregone conclusion but it would then at least comply with British law.
Because of other UN treaties and international law governing stateless persons, Britain cannot deprive somebody of citizenship if they have no other ‘backup citizenship’, basically meaning that if a person was a naturalised citizen this can be revoked however if the person was born in Britain and has always had British citizenship this cannot be revoked. By this token killing Ruhul Amin, who I’m not denying is a terrorist, has set a dangerous precedent that allows British people with birth-right citizenship to be killed without a trial in direct contravention of British judicial practise because the UK government disagrees.
However it’s also important to point out that ISIS isn’t a country and so attacking ISIS in Syria would, technically, be classified as an attack on territory recognised by the United Nations as belonging to Syria; such a move would clearly violate Britain’s redefinition of attacks on a country as, for all of Assad’s barbaric crimes, he has definitely no attacked the UK or its citizens. As a result this legal quagmire cannot be solved as Britain’s redefinition of what constitutes an attack on a UN member-state would also discount Britain’s involvement in Syria; killing jihadis in Syria who are Syrian citizens, by this redefinition, would also constitute an attack on the Syrian government thus illustrating how Britain’s stance is without legal foundation.
The Attorney General has said that there was legal grounds for air-strikes in Syria, but he clearly doesn’t have confidence that his argument will stand up in public as, like the ‘legal basis’ for the 2003 Iraq War, the justification will not be published. In my view international law is very clear in that there are two ways that a country can take military action on foreign soil: by permission of the foreign government or by an authorisation from the UN Security Council. Assad’s regime has not extending this offer to Britain, and no UNSC authorisation has been given, therefore, irrespective of what the British Parliament decides in any vote on the issue, military action will remain without legal basis as long as these two factors remain unchanged.