How Does Turkey Justify Military Intervention In Syria? – Analysis


Considering the Islamic State’s terrorist actions in Syria and the Syria-Turkey border area Turkey as the border State 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. Therefore, 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, by intervening 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, since 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.

With regard to the right of self-defense, it seems likely that the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) jurisprudence is based on the restriction of self-defense against non-state armed groups, where the ICJ has confirmed in the Wall Case (para. 139): “Article 51 of the [United Nations] Charter thus recognizes the existence of an inherent right of self-defense in the case of armed attack by one State against another State”. In this sense, no States can use military force against any armed group active in the other State’s territories. Simply, it cannot be accepted that States legally have right to intervene in other’s national affairs contrary to the general principles of international law including the obligation to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-intervention in the internal affairs of States.

With regard to unwillingness or inability of Syria to suppress the threats of non-state armed groups, 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 both unable and 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.

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 the theory of ‘unwilling or unable’. Yet, it can be pointed out that self-defense against non-state armed groups within the territory of the host State could be acceptable only if the victim State had already reported ineffectiveness of the host State to the United Nations Security Council. In this way, 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.

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. 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 contrary to the general principles of international law including the obligation to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-intervention in the internal affairs of States.

*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 ([email protected]) (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 ([email protected]).

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