3 February 2017

How Does Turkey Justify Military Intervention In Syria? – Analysis

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Turkey, which has long been troubled by Islamic State’s threats located within the territory of Syria and Syria-Turkey border area, is trying to justify Turkish military intervention in Syria against Islamic State in the context of the theory of unwillingness or inability which does not have any legal base.

According to the “unwilling or unable” theory, it would be allowed to target a State harboring a terrorist or non-state armed groups. In other words, if the host state was unwilling or unable to prevent its territory from being used by non-state armed groups to carry out attacks, the victim state would defend itself by entering into that state territories under the right of self-defense.

Turkey believes that Syria as the host State is unwilling or unable to control its territories which are under the Islamic State’s effective control and being used as a ground for its terrorist attacks. To protect against these threats, Turkish military forces have entered Syria on the basis of the right to self-defense against Islamic State. In other words, Turkey’s justification for the military intervention in Syria was founded upon unwillingness or inability of the Syrian government in fighting against Islamic State which has the capacity to carry out attacks in Turkey and threaten Turkish national security progressively.

Nonetheless, Turkey seems unaware of the fact that the continuing attacks of Islamic State against Turkey are the consequences of unlawful Turkish military operations in Iraq at the end of 2015 on the basis of the condemned and unacceptable theory of ‘unwilling or unable’. In a similar case, intervention in Syria’s internal affairs on the basis of self-defense as a result of unwillingness or inability of the Syrian government, Turkey is violating Syria’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, because Syria has not allowed Turkey to deploy its military forces within the country. Legally, no State can intervene in another State’s internal affairs in any case unless by the host state’s consent and invitation.
Legal Aspect

In accordance with the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) decision in Wall Case (para. 139), self-defense against non-state armed groups in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter is related only to situations in which the non-state armed groups’ terrorist attacks are in some way imputable to the state whose territorial sovereignty is being violated. Accordingly, States cannot exercise the right of self-defense on the basis of its own assessment of the situation. Therefore, it seems likely that the ICJ also has not accepted the ‘unwilling or unable’ standard. In other terms, it is only a theory that has no basis in international law.

In addition, it may be superficially said that Syria has not fought against terrorist activities of Islamic State and the other terrorist groups within its sovereign territory, but could it be said that Syria “as the host State” is really unable or unwilling to fight against Islamic State and the other armed groups in its territory? Genuinely, Syrian Army has fought against Islamic State and the other terrorist organizations in its sovereign territory progressively. During these operations, Russia and Iran have also fought against these groups as Syrian allies side by side with Syrian Army. Currently, Syria is assaulting Islamic State and the other terrorist targets with its allies’ comprehensive support. From this point of view, it could be concluded that military intervention in Syria by justifying the theory of ‘unwilling or unable’ does not have any legal base.

In all, the legality of intervention in another State’s internal affairs without its consent against non-state armed groups active in its territory is one of the very controversial issues in international relations when discussed in the context of unwillingness and inability theory. Yet, it can be pointed out that self-defense against non-state armed groups within the territory of the host State by justifying its inability or unwillingness could be acceptable if the victim State such as Turkey had already reported ineffectiveness of the host State to the United Nations Security Council. In such situation, the Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the victim State. The Security Council would make the appropriate decision on the host State’s inability or unwillingness to suppress the threat.

Political Aspect

Yet, politically it may be argued that Turkey could employ other arguments such as the fight against terrorism; nevertheless, fighting against Islamic State in the context of fighting against international terrorism could not justify intervention in Syria’s sovereign territory.

In political terms, Turkey’s military intervention in Syrian borders has turned out to become an explosive boomerang; Istanbul nightclub massacre and the Russian ambassador’s assassination in Ankara are only two of the latest consequences of Turkish foreign policy regarding Syria. Clearly, Turkey’s supposed fight against terrorism in Syria has not solved this problem. It can be stated that it has even accelerated terrorist activities of Islamic State, at least inside Turkey.

Therefore, the fight against terrorism in the broad meaning of the phrase seems less of a rational explanation for Turkey’s presence in Syria and more of a strategically less harmful reply to the international communities’ curiosity on this issue. Another hypothesis on Turkey’s presence in military involvement in Syria is that Turkey is threatened by the area controlled by YPG in Northern Syria which is considered as a potential part of a supposed future Kurdish state. Turkey’s lately strained relations with the United States is also mainly relevant to the United States’ alliance with YPG against the Islamic State in the region. 

Therefore, as it can easily be noted, the axis around which Turkey’s recent activities in Syria revolves is its domestic Kurdish issue. Therefore, politically speaking Turkey’s military intervention in Syria transcends legal international arguments of the issue and is rather a reflection of its domestic problems rather than fight against terrorism.

It is inevitable to argue that the current situation in Syria threatens Turkey as the border State, however Turkish military intervention in Syria on the basis of Turkey’s own assessment of the situation is substantially violation of Syria’s territorial integrity and therefore it is not unfeasible to say that Turkish attitude towards its neighboring country is inconsistent with the principles of respect for the sovereignty of the States, and non-intervention in their internal affairs.

*About the authors:

Dr. Saeed Bagheri has a LL.M in Human Rights Law from Allameh Tabatabei University/Tehran, Ph.D. in Public International Law from Ankara University. His main research interests focus on international humanitarian law, armed conflicts, nuclear law, and human rights law. He is Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Akdeniz University/Turkey (sbocanli@gmail.com) (twitter: @LLMSBagheri).

*Sahar Nejati Karimabad is a Ph.D. candidate in Area Studies at the Middle East Technical University in Turkey. Her main research interests focus on ethnic identity, post-soviet space, international security and gender (saharnj123@gmail.com).

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