The Russian Operation in Syria and International Law

By Alexander Mezyaev

On Sept. 30 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the commencement of Russian military operations in Syria. One of the most important premises of the president’s speech was found in his statement that Russia is taking part in this anti-terror operation with strict regard for international law. Let us take a closer look at the legal aspects of Russia’s actions.

First of all, we should say a few words about the legitimacy of the actions taken by Russia’s leaders in terms of Russian domestic law.

In accordance with Article 10 of the Federal law «On Defense» (1996), the armed forces of the Russian Federation may be utilized to carry out tasks in accordance with the Russian Federation’s international treaties. They may be deployed under the conditions and in the manner stipulated in those treaties and established by the legislation of the Russian Federation.

The involvement of Russia in military operations in Syria stems from the need to combat terrorism. This kid of operations are regulated by Article 4 of the Federal Law «On Countering Terrorism» (2006), and the Russian Federation is working in accordance with that law to counter terrorism, along with foreign states and their law-enforcement agencies and security services, as well as with international organizations. Article 5 of that law gives the President of Russia the right to make decisions in the prescribed manner to deploy units of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, as well as special operations detachments, outside the borders of the Russian Federation in order to prevent terrorist activities. This law couples the country’s national interests with the fight against terrorism beyond Russia’s borders.

While announcing the launch of operations in Syria, Putin emphasized that there are a considerable number of Russian expatriates in the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) and that «if they succeed in Syria, they will inevitably return to their own countries, including Russia». Vladimir Putin also noted that those fighting as part of IS include «thousands of people» from «Europe, Russia, and the countries of the former Soviet Union», and the President’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, has claimed that this number «is growing not by the day but by the hour». Hence the need for proactive steps. «Many may have forgotten», claimed Ivanov, «but in the early 90s, we did almost the same thing in Tajikistan».

According to the Russian Constitution, the Russian President may deploy the armed forces of the Russian Federation outside the borders of the Russian Federation only with the consent of the Federation Council. Such consent was given on Sept. 30 by a unanimous vote. We also note that the Chairman of the Federation Council has stated that not only were federal requirements obeyed, but also internal statutes – in particular, the issue received a preliminary discussion at a meeting of the three committees of the upper house – the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs, the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security, and the Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Law. The meeting on the issue was held behind closed doors, but it is also explicitly stipulated by the Regulations of the Federation Council.

And both the request of the President of the Russian Federation, as well as the Federation Council’s decree, specify that any contingent of the Russian armed forces in Syria be deployed on the basis of universally recognized principles and norms of international law. This phrase means that not only the very decision to utilize the armed forces of the Russian Federation, but also the actions of the Russian forces, are bound by the provisions of such vitally important international legal documents as the Geneva Convention and other statutes of international humanitarian law.

All of the above applies to the domestic aspect of the legal basis for deploying the armed forces of the Russian Federation in Syria.

Second, Russia’s actions are in full compliance with the fundamental principles of modern international law and, above all, the principle of state sovereignty. Russian military assistance to Syria is provided based on a request received from the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic.

The launch of the Russian military operation in Syria coincided with a special session of the UN Security Council (UNSC) devoted to the fight against international terrorism. Preparations for that meeting were made in August, when Russia circulated its policy brief on the problems associated with the fight against terrorism. At the same time, Russia’s entrance into the fight against international terrorism in Syria should be evaluated within the context of that UNSC session, since it was during that meeting that Russia proposed a draft UNSC resolution on the establishment of an international coalition to battle the Islamic State in Syria. That draft was presented by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The Russian draft of the UNSC resolution contains three main ideas. First, there is the suggestion to unite the efforts of those who are able to make a real contribution to the fight against terrorism (Iraq, Syria, the Kurdish militia, armed detachments of the patriotic Syrian opposition, etc.). There is a particular emphasis that the UN Security Council should be responsible for coordinating these efforts. It is interesting to note that the Russian draft proposes the creation of an agency that has existed on paper since 1945, but which has still not been created – the UN Military Staff Committee. Second, the Russian draft stipulates that inter-Syrian dialog be revitalized, based on the Geneva Communiqué of June 30 2012. Finally, the third major idea in the Russian draft is the provision of inclusive and balanced external support for the political process, which would involve Russia, China, the US, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Qatar, and the EU.

Russia’s opponents may point to the fact that the military operation began, not after its approval by the UN Security Council, but at the same time that the draft resolution supporting that operation was introduced within the UNSC. Here it is important to keep two factors in mind. First, the legality of the Russian operation is not based on a UNSC resolution (which can be adopted or not), but on a request received from the legitimate government of Syria. Second, Russia is trying to also steer the actions of Western countries in Syria onto a legal course. Today a number of countries (the US, Australia, and France) are already using their combat aircraft to attack IS positions.

The Russian President has clearly stated that the fight against international terrorism must be conducted solely in strict compliance with international law. This means – within the framework of UN Security Council resolutions or at the request of the country in need of military assistance. The Western nations that are currently in Syria have neither of those. Nevertheless, Russia has stated that it considers it possible and feasible to unite the efforts of all interested states in order to fight against international terrorism and to work together, based on the UN Charter.

Russian military assistance to Syria, which is in full compliance with domestic and international law, also represents an extremely important new phenomenon in international politics – namely, a daring attempt to halt the process of the destruction of the UN and to safeguard progressive international law.