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Why should Turkey play by the rules when Donald Trump doesn’t?

Responding to Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria, the US has announced sanctions on Turkish senior officials and an increase on steel tariffs. The announcement follows President Donald Trump’s warning last week that sanctions would be imposed if Turkey didn’t "play by the rules".

The situation is truly ironic. Pretty much ever since coming to power, Trump has given states the impression that it’s ok not to play by international rules.

Smoke rising over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as Turkey presses on with its military campaign in Syrian territory.Credit:Getty Images

The General Assembly could (and should) also call upon Turkey to scrupulously adhere to the rules of international humanitarian law – the fact that Turkey breached international law by invading northern Syria doesn’t mean it shouldn’t abide by the laws of war once there. Specifically, Turkey should be called upon to target only military objectives, ensure that any harm to civilians is proportionate to the anticipated military advantage, and take all reasonable precautions to protect civilians. Given the number of civilians who have already fled the area – more than 100,000 according to the UN – there is evidently fear that these rules will not be respected.

In tweets last week, Trump laid out three options for a US response to Turkey’s offensive: "Send in thousands of troops and win militarily, hit Turkey very hard financially and with sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!" The only one of these that unquestionably complies with international law is the last. If one hopes to promote respect for the international rules-based order – which prevents one country invading another – the options in response to the Turkish offensive should be: mediate a political solution; if that fails, support a Security Council resolution either authorising a military intervention or imposing sanctions or other measures; or failing that, try and get a resolution through the General Assembly.

The international system has ways of dealing with acts of aggression. They’re very imperfect, but disregarding the international legal order altogether isn’t the answer because it encourages others to do the same, and in this case that’s just what Turkey has done.

Rebecca Barber is a lawyer, consultant and PhD candidate with the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland.

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