Vladimir Putin and Jeremy Corbyn are among the few to show concern that the US’s Tomahawk missile attack on a Syrian air base was “unlawful”. They are right, to the extent that the attack was a breach of the UN Charter Article 2(4), which prohibits the use of force against the territory of another member state.
The only explicit exception (contained in Article 51) is the right of self-defence. But not even the US – which stretched this concept to breaking point to excuse its invasion of Iraq in 2003 – could claim that Assad’s air force was likely to bomb Manhattan. Trump’s apologists claim his action was “unlawful but legitimate”. This oxymoron will not serve if Trump attacks Syria again, or starts bombing North Korea.
The notion of “legitimate lawbreaking” drove Jeremy Bentham mad: if you break the law, however good your motives, you must accept the punishment. This breach of international law, however, comes without any prospect that Trump will be arrested next time he plays golf in Scotland. He has not committed a war crime – he has not targeted schools or hospitals, a speciality of the Syrian air force, and he has not committed a crime against humanity because the lethal attack was not “widespread and systematic” – but if he carries out further attacks, the elements of this crime may coalesce.