Killing ISIS

was my Trade Tripper column for the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The outrage generated by ISIS’ atrocities effected unity of sorts among people of different persuasions. Except for the Left in the United States, which is incapable of grasping the notion that President Obama’s foreign policy is effete at best and likely nurtured ISIS’ rise, many are of the belief that the world’s governments should do something concrete to stop the terrorist onslaught. Right that sentiment may be, but in international law terms it’s easier said than done.

Which is ironic, as Pope Francis himself was reported to have approved of the air strikes against ISIS (more on that later). The legality, however, of the air strikes (or any military move by a foreign power) against ISIS is, believe it or not, questionable at this time.

Colum Lynch in a Foreign Policy piece correctly pointed out: “International legal experts say the United States has an uphill battle convincing many of its allies that there is a legal rationale for extending strikes into Syria. The UN Charter offers two major paths to military action. A government is permitted, under Article 51, to use force against an armed aggressor in self-defense. It can also invite foreign powers to help it defend itself, as Iraq has done. The UN Security Council can, under Article 42, authorize a military intervention. But those roads may be blocked for the time being.

“The Syrian government has not approved American air power. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned that Bashar al-Assad’s regime would consider American military intervention in its territory an ‘act of aggression’ unless it coordinated its activities with Damascus -- a condition Washington has rejected. And Russia -- while no friend of the Islamic State -- may not be inclined to approve a Security Council resolution granting Washington a blank check in Syria.”

Ryan Goodman, on the other hand, stated: “In conducting attacks against ISIS, the United States might assert either (1) the right of individual self-defense due to ISIS’ direct threat to the United States; or (2) the right of collective self-defense in coming to the aid of Iraq. At this point, the former is a weak one -- without a truly imminent or actual ‘armed attack’ against the United States. The latter is solid.

“But what about US forces crossing the border into Syria? The US government would likely assert that Syria is ‘unwilling or unable’ to deal effectively with the ISIS threat. This is the same prerogative that the United States invokes in other parts of the world (think: the US operation to kill Osama bin Laden without seeking Pakistan’s approval). The ‘unwilling or unable’ test is now a fairly well settled part of the US government’s legal position. Nevertheless, it remains controversial under international law.”

Regarding “collective self-defense” that Goodman indicated above, the same could be legally defensible but politically difficult. Considering the dynamics involved in Security Council votes, as well as Obama’s continuing inability to show leadership in this matter, for it to authorize actual military force is currently improbable.

As for the Pope himself agreeing to the use of force, what he actually said was aptly described by Think Progress as follows: “‘I can only say this: It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,’ the pontiff said in reference to ISIS, according to CNN. ‘I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means.’ ‘But we must also have memory,’ he added. ‘How many times under this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor the powers [that intervened] have taken control of peoples, and have made a true war of conquest.’”

Indeed, under the teachings of the Church, military force may be morally permissible if “the following conditions are simultaneously present:
• the suffering inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave and certain;

• all other peaceful means must have been shown to be ineffective;

• there are well-founded prospects of success;

• the use of arms, especially given the power of modern weapons of mass destruction, must not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

And even then, “during a war the moral law always remains valid. It requires the humane treatment of noncombatants, wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. Deliberate actions contrary to the law of nations, and the orders that command such actions are crimes, which blind obedience does not excuse. Acts of mass destruction must be condemned and likewise the extermination of peoples or ethnic minorities, which are most grievous sins. One is morally bound to resist the orders that command such acts.”

Which just goes to show that, even in war, what is moral is not necessarily legal. And vice versa.