In his When War Is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (Orbis 1996, p. 3), theologian John Howard Yoder asks, “Can the criteria function in such a way that in a particular case a specified cause, or a specified means, or a specified strategy or tactical move could be excluded? Can the response ever be ‘no’?” In my judgment, the present crisis in Syria is indeed a particular case where a just war response is “no.”
The red line designated by President Barack Obama has now allegedly been crossed in Syria by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. On August 21, in Ghouta, which is a suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, 355 persons died, including 54 children and 82 women, according to the international aid group Doctors without Borders, from a chemical weapons attack. A statement from No. 10 Downing St. said that British Prime Minister David Cameron and the US president are concerned by “increasing signs” that “a significant chemical weapons attack” was carried out by the Syrian government against its people. Cameron and Obama also “reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community.”
The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the chemical weapons attack, suggesting that rebel forces instead has been using chemical weapons against the military and now even their own people to deceive others to thereby take action against Assad. According to President Obama, however, the US possesses information that incriminates the Syrian government for this chemical attack. Secretary of State Kerry has added that Syria’s granting access to the site by UN investigators came “too late to be credible.”
The US administration has also studied the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, primarily conducted through air strikes, as a possible legal “precedent” for military action against the Syrian regime. However, while the intervention in Kosovo may have been morally if not legally justified, in my view such military action against Syrian forces would not at this time be morally justified.
The heartbreaking videos and photos showing children suffering and dying is just cause for taking action. Anyone’s use of weapons of mass destruction that are inherently indiscriminate, such as chemical munitions, is rightly condemned. As Secretary of State Kerry said, it is a “moral obscenity.” An article in the New York Times observed that this was “the largest mass killing of the Syrian civil war, and most likely the deadliest chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein’s troops killed thousands of Kurds with sarin gas during the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.” As such, it is “shaping up as an inflection point for a war that has been grinding on for more than two years and has claimed more than 100,000 victims.”
Yet, there are lessons to be learned from Kosovo. Indeed, one of the criticisms of the Kosovo intervention was when NATO’s desire to avoid combat casualties led to carrying out aerial bombings from higher altitudes, thereby lessening NATO’s ability to avoid harming the very people they were trying to protect. Likewise, in connection with the criterion of proportionality, when NATO bombs initially caused the Serbian army to step up its attacks on Kosovars and increased the number of refugees, just war ethicists worried that the intervention was leading to greater evils than what it was supposed to stop in the first place. There are already over 1.7 million Syrian refugees, making a huge impact on neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. I worry that military intervention at this time will only increase the suffering, especially for the civilians of Syria.
No one seems innocent in this current conflict–except for the children. I wish there was some way to take their side, on all sides. From a just war perspective, however, in this particular case at this time, I do not see how military intervention is morally justified if we take into consideration–as we must–other criteria, besides only just cause, of the just war tradition.
(For more on the other criteria, as well as a suggestion about an alternative that should be explored–drawing on the work of H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr, Stanley Hauerwas, Mother Teresa, and Glen Stassen–see my article on this topic in the August 31, 2013 issue of The Tablet, which has been reproduced, with permission, at Ekklesia here.)