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International armed conflicts in Syria

Conflict type: International armed conflict

Due to the use of force by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government, there is an international armed conflict. In addition, Turkey is using force against both the Islamic State group and Kurdish militia in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government.

There are international armed conflicts between Syria and the U.S-led coalition, and Syria and Turkey.

  • Targeting the Islamic State group in Syria, the U.S-led coalition consists of Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Jordan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  As the military intervention takes place without the consent of the Syrian government, there is an international armed conflict in Syria. In addition, in 2017, the U.S. has repeatedly targed Syrian government positions.
  • Turkey is also undertaking air and ground offensives in Syria against the Islamic State group and Kurdish militia and occupies part of northern Syria.

The classification of the military intervention as an international armed conflict due to the use of force without the consent of Syria does not affect the classification of the armed conflict against the Islamic State group, which remains non-international in character. The operations against the Islamic State group can be considered a single non-international armed conflict that extends across Syria and Iraq.

The violence in Syria has repeatedly spilled over into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As a result, both Syrian and Israeli forces have repeatedly violated the 1974 Agreement, see for example Report of the Secretary General on the United Nations Disengagement Force for the Period from 2 March to 16 May 2017, UN doc S/2017/486, 8 June 2017; Report of the Secretary General on the United Nations Disengagement Force for the Period from 1 March to 20 May 2016, UN doc S/2016/520, 8 June 2016. Israel previously carried out missile and airstrikes inside Syrian territory, including in order to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. Examples include the downing of a Syrian warplane that had entered the airspace of the Golan Heights in September 2014, see ‘Israel Shoots Down Syrian Warplane’, CBS/Associated Press, 23 September 2014; the bombing of Syrian army positions in March 2014, December 2014, and September 2015, see L. Smith-Spark and M. Schwartz, ‘Israel Retaliates in Syria After Roadside Bomb Attack Against Israeli Troops’, CNN, 19 March 2014; P. Beaumont, ‘Israeli Jets Bomb Syria, Says Damascus’, The Guardian, 7 December 2014; ‘Israel Strikes Syria After Stray Rockets Land in Golan’, Al Jazeera, 28 September 2015; and a series of bombings believed to aim to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, for example in March 2013 and in November 2016, see ‘Israel Bombs Hezbollah-bound Missiles in Syria: Official’, Reuters, 4 May 2013; ‘Israeli Airstrikes Hit Damascus Outskirts, Syrian Reports Says’, The Guardian/Associated Press, 30 November 2016; P. Beaumont, 'Israel Reported to Have Bombed Syrian Chemical Weapons Facility', The Guardian, 7 September 2017.

On February 11, Israel launched its largest scale aerial attacks inside Syria so far. After claiming to have intercepted an Iranian drone crossing the Syrian-Israeli border, Israeli fighter planes attacked a Syrian military base. During the attack, an Israeli fighter plane was shut down by Syrian air defence. In response, Israel launched attacks targeting Syrian air defences. A. Taylor, 'Israel Has Taken Its Biggest Step Into the Syrian War Yet. What Does that Mean?', The Washington Post, 10 February 2018; L. Sly and L. Morris, 'Syria's War Mutates Into a Regional Conflict, Risking a Wider Conflagration', The Washington Post, 12 February 2012; A. Carey, L. Smith-Spart and N. Chavez, 'Israeli PM: Airstrikes Dealt "Severe Blows" to Iran, Syria', CNN, 11 February 2018: 'Damascus Warns Israel of "More Surprises" in Syria', Reuters, 13 February 2018;  R. Bergman,  'The Middle East's Coming War', The New York Times, 12 February 2018. The use of force by Israel against Syria amounts to a short-lived international armed conflict. The threshold for an international armed conflict is very low. Whenever there is a resort to hostile armed force between two states, there is an international armed conflict. For further information, see 'international armed conflict - a low threshold' in our classification section. Iran backs the Syrian government, but denied that it was an Iranian drone. O. Holmes and S.K. Dehghan, 'Israel and Iran Consider Next Move After Syrian Clash Crosses Red Line', The Guardian, 12 February 2018; 'Iran Sneers at Reports of Israel Downing Iranian Drone: State TV', Reuters, 10 February 2018. Similarly, Iran consistently denies direct military involvement in the armed conflicts in Syria although it acknowledges the presence of military advisory to train and assist government forces and government-allied militia. However, such capacity building activities do not render Iran a party to the conflicts in Syria. For further information on who is a party to the armed conflict, see 'contemporary challenges - who is a party to an armed conflict' in our classification section.

For an international armed conflict to exist, there must have been a resort to armed force involving at least two states. Unlike for non-international armed conflicts, there is no requirement for the violence to reach a certain threshold for international armed conflicts.

Operations against the Islamic State group

Albeit controversial, under the expansive view adopted by the RULAC project, there is an international armed conflict when states carry out military operations directed against non-state armed groups in the territory of another state without the latter’s consent, regardless of whether or not the territorial state responds with armed force or whether there are actual clashes between the armed forces of the states involved. For further information on the classification of the use of force against non-state armed groups in another state’s territory without the latter’s consent, see 'contemporary challenges - relevance of consent' in our classification section. This position does not exclude that there may be a parallel non-international armed conflict between the intervening state and the targeted non-state armed group, provided that the criteria for a non-international armed conflict are fulfilled. For further information on the use of force against non-state armed groups abroad see 'contemporary challenges - targeting non-state armed groups abroad' in our classification section. On the criteria for a non-international armed conflict see 'non-international armed conflict' in our classification section.

The Syrian government repeatedly condemned the use of force by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group, stressing that ‘Syria has not made any request to that effect.’ Identical letters Dated 17 September 2015 from the Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretar-General and the President of the Security Council, UN doc S/2015/719, 21 September 2015. In addition, the Syrian government rejects the claims of individual and collective self-defence advanced by the intervening states, see for example UN doc S/2015/719; Identical letters dated 21 September 2015 from the Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council, UN doc A/70/385–S/2015/727, 22 September 2015. For a collection of the positions expressed by Syria and other states on the use of force against the Islamic State group, see O. Corten, The Fight Against ISIS – Official Position of States (January 2014 – January 2016), Contra Bellum, Dossier éléctronique du centre de droit international de l’Université Libre de Bruxelles. Similarly, Syria has repeatedly condemned the use of force by Turkey without its consent as acts of aggression. See for example Identical Letters Dated 18 January 2016 from the Chargéd’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council, UN doc S/2016/45, 22 January 2016.

Hence, according to the position adopted by the RULAC project, the use of force by the U.S.-led coalition and Turkey leads to parallel international armed conflicts in Syria due to the absence of consent by the Syrian government. In this sense, see A. A. Haque, ‘The United States is at War with Syria (According to the ICRC’s New Geneva Convention Commentary)’, Blog EJIL Talk, 8 April 2016; A. A. Haque, ‘Whose Armed Conflict? Which Law of Armed Conflict?’, Blog Just Security, 4 October 2016; A. A. Haque, ‘Between the Law of Force and the Law of Armed Conflict’, Blog Just Security, 13 October 2016; D. Akande, ‘When Does the Use of Force Against a Non-State Armed Group Trigger an International Armed Conflict and Why Does This Matter?', EJIL Talk Blog, 18 October 2016; A. A. Haque, ‘Shots Fired: A Reply to Gill and Watkin’, Blog Just Security, 25 October 2016.

However, many others adopt a more narrow view and reject the notion that there is a parallel international armed conflict if states use force against non-state armed groups without the consent of the territorial state as in the case of Syria. T.D. Gill, ‘Classifying the Conflict in Syria’, U.S. Naval War College, 92 International Law Studies, p 366 ff; T. Gill, ‘Letter to the Editor From Professor Terry Gill on Classification of International Armed Conflict’, Blog Just Security, 14 October 2014; S. Watts, ‘The Updated First Geneva Convention Commentary, DOD’s Law of War Manual, and a More Perfect Law of War, Part I’, Blog Just Security, 5 July 2016; K. Watkin, ‘The ICRC Updated Commentaries: Reconciling Form and Substance, Part I’, Blog Just Security, 24 August 2016; K. Watkin, ‘The ICRC Updated Commentaries: Reconciling Form and Substance, Part II’, Blog Just Security,  August 2016. In the context of the U.S.-led Syrian intervention, there are ongoing debates whether the U.S. support to Turkey, the presence of U.S. troops in Syria, or airstrikes that purportedly hit government armed forces would satisfy the narrow legal position that force must be directed against the territorial state in order to amount to a parallel international armed conflict. In favor, see R. Goodman, ‘Is the United States Already in an “International Armed Conflict” with Syria?’, Just Security Blog, 11 October 2016; R. Goodman, ‘Turkey’s US Backed Operation in Syria Has Created an International Armed Conflict’, Blog Just Security, 17 October 2016. Against, see G. Rona, ‘Letter to the Editor: Not So Fast on Calling it an “Armed Conflict” Between the US and Syria’, Blog Just Security, 13 October 2016; D. Pearlstein, ‘A Syrian IAC?’, Blog Opinio Juris, 14 October 2016. Neither Syria nor any of the states intervening in Syria have publicly commented on the classification of the conflict.

U.S. strikes targeting government positions in 2017

Under the approach adopted by RULAC, it is not necessary that the use of force is directed against the territorial state. Nonetheless, it is wortwhile to point out that during 2017, the U.S. repeatedly targeted Syrian government positions.

First, in response to the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons, the United States conducted missile strikes against a Syrian Air Force airfield on 7 April 2017. U. S. Department of Defense, 'Statement from Pentagon Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on U.S. Strike in Syria', Press Release, 6 April 2017; S. Almukhtar, K. K. R. Lai, S. Peçanha and  K. Yourish, 'Mapping the Targets of the American Military Attack on Syria', The New York Times, 7 April 2017. Even under the narrow view that requires the use of force to be directed against the territorial state, such a direct attack against Syrian government facilities amounts to an international armed conflict of the United States with Syria. S. Nebehay, 'Exclusive: Situation in Syria Constitutes International Armed Conflict - Red Cross', Reuters, 7 April 2017. For further information, see the Classification section on international armed conflict. In response, Russia suspended an agreement to prevent incidents between Russian and coalition airplanes. M. Bulman, 'US Air Strikes in Syria: Russia Suspends Agreement Preventing Direct Conflict with American Forces', Independent, 7 April 2017; N. MacFarquhar, 'U.S. Agrees With Russia on Rules in Syrian Sky', The New York Times, 20 October 2015.

The airstrikes in response to the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons may be considered a short lived, distinct international armed conflict that is not related to the use of forge against the Islamic State group. However, in May and June  2017, the U.S. also conducted strikes against Syrian government forces or pro-government militias to prevent them from advancing towards the area of operations of U.S. special forces working with armed opposition groups M. Ryan, 'U.S. Launches Rare Intentional Strike on Pro-Government Forces in Syria', The Washington Post, 19 May 2017; T. Gibbons-Neff, 'U.S. Conducts New Strikes on Pro-Syrian-Government Forces Threatening U.S. Special Operations Base', The Washington Post, 6 June 2017.  and shot down a Syrian government fighter plane. T.Gibbson-Neff and K. Fahim, 'U.S. Aircraft Shoots Down a Syrian Government Jet Over Northern Syria, Pentagon Says', The Washington Post, 18 June 2017.

 

Turkish air and ground offensives in Syria

Turkey's air and ground operations in Syria target both the Islamic State group and the Kurdish People's Protection Units YPG. Wary of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, Turkey attempts to prevent the establishment of a contiguous Kurdish region between Afrin and Kobane, in particular against the background of the renewed non-international armed conflict against the Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK in Turkey. Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the PKK.The Turkish operations against the U.S.-backed YPG continues to lead to tensions with the United States and other members of the international coalition.

In addition to occupying part of northern Syria, Turkey has also deployed ground troops in northern Idlib since October 2017 as part of the de-escalation zone agreed upon with Russia and Iran. See J. Dettmer, 'Turkey Deploys More Forces in Northern Syria', VOA, 3 November 2017; W. Frangieh, 'Hostility Toward Militants Grows in Idlib as Turkey Deploys Troops', Syria Deeply, 23 October 2017; S. Al-Khalidi, 'Turkish Army Expands Deployment in Syria's Northwest: Rebels', Reuters, 15 October 2017.  After intensifying its airstrikes, Turkey and allied Syrian rebels, namely the Free Syrian Army (FSA)  initiated a ground offensive against the Kurdish militia in Afrin in January 2018. K. Shaheen, 'Turkey Starts Ground Incursion into Kurdish-Controlled Afrin in Syria', The Guardian, 21 January 2018; E. Cunningham and L. Loveluck, 'Turkey Says Its Troops Have Entered Syria in Fight Against Kurdish Militias', The Washington Post, 21 January 2018;  'Turkey Deploys Thousands of FSA Rebels at Syria Border', Al Jazeera, 20 January 2018.

The Turkish use of force against both the Islamic State group and the Kurdish militia without the consent of the Syrian government is an international armed conflict. The presence of Turkish troops in Syria would also satisfy a narrower view that requires the presence of ground forces in order for the use of force against non-state armed groups abroad to qualify as an international armed conflict. For further information on the use of force against armed non-state groups abroad without the consent of the territorial government, see 'contemporary challenges - relevance of consent' and 'contemporary challenges - targeting non-state armed groups abroad' in our classification section. The classification of the Turkish use of force against Syria as an international armed conflict does not affect the classification of the armed conflicts against the Islamic State group and the YPG in Syria, which remain non-international in character. For further information on the dual qualification of the use of force against non-state armed groups abroad without the consent of the territorial government, see 'contemporary challenges - fragmentation of armed conflicts' in our classification section.

Syria, Turkey, the United States and the other members of the coalition are party to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions. Syria, Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Jordan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom are also a party to the 1977 Additional Protocol I applicable to international armed conflicts. In addition, they are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable international armed conflicts. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law. In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict.

Last updated: Thursday 22nd March 2018