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Updated on 10 March 2018


Section 12:   Communications


Turkey characterizes attacks on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria as self-defence under Article 51


On 20 January 2018, the day that Turkey launched air and artillery strikes against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.  That same day, the Turkish representative to the UN sent a letter to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council (S/2018/53). 


In his letter, the representative asserted that in conflict-riven Syria, “terrorist organizations that have found fertile ground remain a serious threat to regional and international security”.  Continuing, he stated that Turkey’s national security “has been under direct threat from the Syria-based terrorist organizations, among which Deash and the PKK/KCK[1] Syria affiliate, PYD/YPG[2], are at the top of the list.”  Specifically, he attested to a “recent increase in rocket attacks and harassment fire directed at Hatay and Kilis provinces of Turkey from the Afrin region of Syria, which is under the control of the PKK/KCK/PYD/YPG terrorist organization”.   The Turkish representative further contended that Deash terrorists recently coming into the Afrin region from other parts of Syria heightened the risk of Deash elements infiltrating Turkey and targeting the security of Turkey and other European countries.


He then stated that in order “to counter this terrorist threat, Turkey initiated a military operation on 20 January 2018 against these terrorist elements.”  The stated aim of the operation was to ensure Turkey’s border security, neutralize terrorists in Afrin, and save “the brotherly Syrians”.  He affirmed that the operation would target “only terrorists and their hideouts, shelters, emplacements, weapons, vehicles and equipment”, with care taken to avoid collateral damage.  At the same time, the Turkish representative contended that his country was “unequivocally committed to the territorial integrity and political unity of Syria”.


The Turkish representative justified his country’s military operation on the basis of Article 51 of the UN Charter and four Security Council resolutions:


“This measure was essential in order to ensure the border security of Turkey and our national security based on our right of self-defence, as defined in Article 51 of the Charter, but also within the context of the responsibility attributed to Member States in the fight against terrorism, including through Security Council resolutions 1373 (2001), 1624 (2005), 2170 (2014) and 2178 (2014).”


This is the fifth letter sent by Turkey since 2015 informing the Security Council of military action which it has undertaken in Syria and which it has characterized as self-defence and thereby justifiable under Article 51 of the UN Charter.  Article 51 reads:


“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.  Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”


Of Turkey’s previous four letters, one other related to Kurdish forces in Syria, as well as in Iraq.  On 25 April 2017, Turkey cited Article 51 when it reported to the Security Council that it had taken military action in both Syria and Iraq against members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  In that letter (S/2017/350), the Turkish representative stated


“The PKK terrorist organization and its affiliates continue to operate in Syria and Iraq, target Turkish citizens, violate Turkey’s border security and infiltrate into Turkish territory from their hideouts in northern Iraq and northern Syria. . . .  Against this background, in the early hours of 25 April 2017, the Turkish Air Force undertook a military action on the positions of PKK and its affiliates in Sinjar, Iraq, and Karachuk, Syria, that were used

directly and deliberately for targeting Turkey.  This measure was essential not only in terms of safeguarding Turkey’s border security and national security in the exercise of its inherent right of self-defence as outlined in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, but also within the context of the responsibility attributed to States Members of the United Nations in the fight against terrorism.”


The other three letters which Turkey addressed to the Security Council President which invoked Article 51 in connection with actions taken in Syria are the following:


  • On 24 August 2016, the representative of Turkey informed the Council President that “Turkey initiated a military operation in the early hours of 24 August 2016 against Deash, which has been directly and deliberately targeting Turkey, as part of its national efforts and in collaboration with international actions.”  He added that this military action, “supported by the International Coalition elements”, was being undertaken in areas under Deash control in northern Syria.  The letter further stated that the operation was essential in terms of ensuring Turkey’s border security and our national security based on the notion of self-defence as outlined in Article 51, but also within the context of the responsibility attributed to member countries in the fight against terrorism through Security Council resolutions 1373 (2001), 2170 (2014) and 2178 (2014)” (S/2016/739).


  • On 24 July 2015, the Turkish representative wrote to inform the Security Council that Turkey “is under a clear and imminent threat of continuing attack from Daesh”.  He added that it was “apparent that the regime in Syria is neither capable of nor willing to prevent these threats emanating from its territory, which clearly imperil the security of Turkey and the safety of its nationals”.  Affirming that “Individual and collective self-defence is our inherent right under international law, as reflected in Article 51”, he stated that “On this basis, Turkey has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions against Daesh in Syria” (S/2015/563).


  • On 22 February 2015, the representative of Turkey wrote a letter informing the Council that from 21 to 22 February, Turkish armed forces had conducted “a military operation for the relocation of the Süleyman Şah Memorial Outpost, a 10-acre area of land of Turkish territory inside Syria”, after it had come under “an imminent threat from the terrorist organization Deash”.  The Turkish representative added that his country “respects the territorial integrity of Syria and is committed to protect its rights and interests emanating from international law and to exercise its right of self-defence stipulated in Article 51” (S/2015/127). 


The representative of Syria, in a number of letters, has complained about “the repeated aggressions the forces of the Turkish regime have committed against the sovereignty and territory of Syria” and has disputed that such actions are grounded in the Charter.  In a letter dated 1 February 2018 (S/2018/82), a Syrian representative rejected the Turkish representative’s  citation of Article 51 in his letter of 20 January 2018 to justify Turkey’s actions in Syria, and criticized both the Security Council and Turkey for using that Article as a pretext for violating “the sovereignty and territorial integrity and unity of States”:


“The reluctance of the Security Council to carry out its duty to prevent the attacks being launched by the so-called ‘international coalition’ led by the United States of America against the Syrian Arab Republic under the pretext of self-defence as provided for in Article 51 of the Charter, and its failure to put an end to the abuse of that article as a pretext for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity and unity of States, have allowed the Turkish regime to use that same pretext for launching a new attack against the Syrian Arab Republic.  Despite the claims being purveyed by both the international coalition and the Turkish regime, Article 51 of the Charter and the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice handed down on 9 July 2004 in the matter of the separation wall built by the Israeli occupation authorities in occupied Palestinian territory both make clear that the type of attack that gives a State the right of self-defence must come from another State, not from individuals or terrorist organizations.”


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that the operation in northern Syria, code-named “Operation Olive Branch”, will continue “until all terrorists are wiped out.”[3]  Given the stiff resistance of the Kurdish fighters in the region, the entry into the conflict of Turkish-backed Syrian militias, the declared intention of Turkey also to eject Kurdish forces from the area around Manbij, and the complex inter-NATO dynamics relating to Turkey’s offensive, “Operation Olive Branch” is likely to be of long duration and may evolve in unanticipated ways.  This recalls the issues raised by the representative of Guatemala during the Security Council’s open debate on its working methods on 20 October 2015.  At that meeting, the Guatemalan representative pointed to the increase in letters invoking Article 51 and stressed that “it is vital to ensure proper compliance and control of the use of this format”.  In particular, she qualified as “questionable” the legality of letters which cite Article 51 in an “open format”, thereby assuming the argument “that once a communication has been sent any future military action can be justified.”  In this connection, she stressed that Article 51 communications “do not exempt the Council from its responsibility to maintain international peace and security in each of these situations individually” (S/PV.7539). 


(This update supplements page 438 of the book.  See also the related article on this website on the history of reporting to the Security Council pursuant to Article 51.)


[1] Kurdistan Workers’ Party / Kurdistan Communities Union.

[2] Democratic Union Party / People’s Protection Units.

[3] See, for example, Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak, 3 March 2018:




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