France bombed Damascus 90 years ago as a reaction to the Syrian revolt for independence. France held the mandate over Syria under the League of Nations authority. The day after an attack against French troops, France bombed the city for 48 hours. It is said that between 1000 and 5000 people died. Bombardments continued the following months.
France’s intervention was authorised by the Western powers and by the League of Nations. And precisely the endorsement of the League triggered the reaction of Arab critics: Was France allowed by international law to intervene militarily in Syria?
Quincy Wright (1926) addressed this question in an article published some time after the attack. Wright asks himself if international law was applicable at all, and if so, whether France had violated it.
As important as it is, let us leave the second question for historians and focus on the first one only.
France claimed that the actions of its forces were not regulated by international law. This was so because of two reasons: firstly, due to their barbaric condition, “Syria and other non-European communities (were) outside of the system of international law” (1926: 265); and secondly, since Syria technically was a French colony, France’s involvement in the region did not have an international character.
In relation to the first point, Wright wonders if “international law require(s) the application of laws of war to people of a different civilization” (1926: 266), and concludes that international law does not appear to recognize such a distinction between civilised and barbaric peoples. In Wright’s opinion, then, international law was applicable everywhere and mandatory for all, regardless of geography, culture and level of development.
One can only hope that all international lawyers nowadays would publicly share Wright’s view, but this was not the case nine decades ago. In his response, revealingly titled “How to fight savage tribes”, Elbridge Colby (1927) argued that there is a fundamental difference between civilised and savage peoples, a difference that would justify not applying the international standards developed by the former ones to conflicts involving the latter ones. International law would essentially be a “Christian doctrine” (1927: 280). Savage people would not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants; they follow a primitive understanding of war that involves everyone; they do not care about international law in the conduct of hostilities, as Western powers apparently do, and it would be “really beside the point” to bother ourselves with distasteful allegations of British employment of savage tribes in regular war in favour of the Crown (1927: 281, 284-285).
Colby concludes firmly: “It is good to be decent. It is good to use proper discretion. It is good to observe the decencies of international law. But it is a fact that against uncivilized people who do not know international law and do not observe it, and would take advantage of one who did, there must be something else. The ‘something else’ should not be a relaxation of all bonds of restraint. But it should be clear understanding that this is a different kind of war, this which is waged by native tribes, than that which might be waged between advanced nations of western culture” (1927: 287).
Let us move swiftly to the second point made by the French not to apply international law in that case: Syria was a French colony, where only French law applied. Wright looks at the international legal standards relevant at that time and resolves that this is a contentious matter dependent on our interpretation of the facts. If we believe the turbulence was nothing but banditry with no political agenda, then France would be right. If, on the other hand, the revolt symbolised a declared campaign for independence, then international law may be of use, insofar self-determination was settling as one of its general principles. A critical factor, nonetheless, was the fact that revolutionaries had not managed to hold control of local government and had not been recognised as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. In this regard, Wright writes that “though the insurgents had the sympathy of most of the population, they were in law revolting against the native governments as well as the mandatory”, that is, against France (1926: 271). Insurgents did not legally represent Syria, and therefore this could not be an international armed conflict. Wright contradicts France’s intentions in relation to their first claim, but concedes France’s victory in the second one.
The 90th anniversary of the bombardment of Damascus gives me the opportunity to share two thoughts:
The first one is a question to advocates of the idea of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P is an attempt to develop international law ultimately to justify military interventions in zones where gross human rights violations are taking place. For some, the morality of the intention would be such that R2P would make the intervention legitimate even if that required bypassing the authority of the Security Council. Saving them would be too important for us to get distracted with legalistic nuisance. As said above, I cannot imagine anybody would agree with Colby in this day and age: Nobody would say that international law is only meant to apply to civilised nations. However, I must ask this to R2P promoters: Have we fully overcome the civilised/barbaric dichotomy?
It is well-known that there has not been Western military intervention in the tragic Syrian war of our days. David Cameron miserably failed to convince the Commons in summer 2013. However, Russia recently accepted a request for military support from the Syrian Government. Russia is supposedly fighting ISIS, for what Assad has shown his gratitude publicly. Yet, observers have denounced that Russia is also targeting opposition forces and hitting civilians. NATO has just demanded Russia to “cease immediately”. Whatever the political implications and military consequences, this military action has also raised Russia’s profile in any future diplomatic solution. International law has evolved since the 1920s at least to the extent that we can no longer say that non-international armed conflicts are irrelevant to international law, but I hold serious doubts about the normative status of R2P in contemporary international society. That said, my second question is this: When we are dealing with protracted and stagnated civil wars, as in the case of Syria today, shouldn’t international law develop to the point of not granting the side that controls the capital absolute legitimacy to call for support abroad while the other side/s cannot?
Photographs of the bombardment of Damascus in 1925-1926 here.
Photograph by Khalil Ashawi (Reuters): A civil defence member walks on the rubble of a damaged building next to a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force at Ehsim town in the southern countryside of Idlib (Syria) on 3 October 2015.