Tillerson Says U.S. To Stay In Syria Indefinitely
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Syrian government is warning this morning that the United States' military presence in that country is illegitimate and represents an aggression against Syrian sovereignty. This came after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that U.S. forces would stay in parts of the country indefinitely.
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REX TILLERSON: The United States will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge.
GREENE: Tillerson made that announcement yesterday at Stanford University. Now, there are currently some 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria providing support to anti-government rebels, but there are questions about if and when the U.S. might be violating international law. And law professor Milena Sterio of Cleveland State University has been writing about this, and she joins us.
MILENA STERIO: Thank you. It's good to be on the show.
GREENE: Well, it's good to have you. You've suggested that the U.S. presence in Syria might be on shaky ground. And I just want to really understand this because I thought there was a U.N. resolution saying that the United States could be there to fight terrorism. So what do you see as shaky here?
STERIO: What's shaky here is that international law is clear in that it bans the use of force of one state against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state. And the only two exceptions in international law to this general ban are if there's a clear Security Council resolution or in self-defense. The Security Council resolution has to specifically authorize a country to use force against another country, and doing things like fighting terrorism is not carte blanche to stage an indefinite military intervention on the territory of another foreign nation.
GREENE: OK, so you use the word indefinite there. It's - you're saying this resolution might have given the U.S. some limited authority to go after terrorist groups, but especially if ISIS is beginning to fade away, that that becomes much less clear here that the U.S. has a role.
STERIO: Sure because the problem here is that basically, Secretary Tillerson announced several goals that the United States right now has in Syria, and one of those goals is ensuring that ISIS or al-Qaida never re-emerge. But there are other goals stated that include, for example, supporting the United Nations-led political process, diminishing Iran's influence, making sure the country doesn't have weapons of mass destruction and helping refugees.
And it - when - comes to those other goals, it is unclear, you know, what kind of a military operation might be needed, and it seems like a broader military operation might be needed to support those other goals and that some of those military operations could potentially continue for a very long time. And that is not what Security Council resolution here had in mind.
GREENE: If you don't mind, let me just play a little more of what Tillerson had to say yesterday.
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TILLERSON: We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when our premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaida in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS. It was that vacuum that allowed ISIS and other terrorist organizations to wreak havoc on the country.
GREENE: So Professor, if the argument remains that - that they - the United States will not allow a terrorist group to re-emerge, and they don't focus on some of the other things like weapons of mass destruction, is the U.S. argument more solid?
STERIO: It is not more solid in the sense that right now, there simply isn't Security Council authorization for the United States to launch a military operation on the territory of a foreign state such as Syria of such a broad, you know, open-ended nature. So it might be on slightly more solid ground, but really, international law today does not authorize the United States to use military force against Syria.
GREENE: And what about the civil war that's, you know, killed hundreds of thousands of people, set off a massive refugee crisis that sounds like could get worse at some point soon in the northwest part of the country? Is there a humanitarian argument? I mean, I know the principle of responsibility to protect came out and was talked about around the Rwanda genocide. Could that be something the U.S. could use?
STERIO: Sure. So humanitarian intervention is, at best, an emerging norm of international law. Right now, it is not a well-established exception to the overall ban on the use of force. It's an emerging norm. It is sort of a moral justification, if you will, for the use of force. But right now, international law doesn't support the use of force against a foreign, you know, sovereign nation on humanitarian grounds. And some might say that that is unfortunate. Some might say that there should be a humanitarian intervention exception. But right now, there simply isn't one.
GREENE: Talking to law professor Milena Sterio at Cleveland State University about some of the legal issues that will arise if, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, the United States tries to stay indefinitely in Syria. Professor, thanks.
STERIO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.