Just War and Syria

by Chaplain (MAJ) Daryl Densford, Ethics instructor at the U.S. Army Military Police School, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri

At the time of this writing, the conflict in Syria is dominating the news. Flowing from the “Arab Spring” where Libya, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries saw a groundswell of popular support for regime change, Syria’s people rose up to also seek reforms from their government. While many of the combatants currently fighting the Assad regime increasingly are identifying with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, this does not provide justification for the Syrian government to not abide by Just War doctrine. Neither does it relieve the international community from acting to protect innocent Syrian civilians as Just War doctrine might allow.

In this article, I will briefly compare the Syrian governments actions to Just War doctrine, showing where it strays from accepted principles of war.  I will also show how the United Kingdom has employed Just War doctrine to justify their use of force against the Syrian government and Assad regime.

Justice toward War

In discussing the Syrian governments military response to the popular uprising in Syria, there is much disagreement as to whether military action by government troops is justified. Some may suggest that the Syrian people are simply seeking basic rights and freedoms which should be available to citizens of any country so therefore, are justified in “rebelling” against their government removing the justification for government forces to respond.  On the other hand, any government has the responsibility and right to defend itself and ensure the safety of its citizens.  If the uprising is viewed as an attack against the people of Syria, the government is then obligated to launch a defense. Additionally, and clearly, any government has the right and responsibility to defend its borders from terrorists and outside forces. It is this justification that the Assad regime has used for their military operations, claiming that the combatants battling the government are terrorists and forces from outside of Syria seeking to destabilize the Syrian government.

If we can categorize the Syrian government’s military response as just is a matter of debate. Whether engaging the rebels militarily is seen as abiding by Justice toward War doctrine or not, the Assad regime is still responsable to prosecute its war on Just War principles. It is to this Justice in War that I now turn.

Not Consent to Do Evil

According to the Voice of America website, “U.N. investigators say Assad’s forces have carried out war crimes including unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence, indiscriminate attacks and pillaging in what appears to be a state-directed policy.”[1] If proven true, the Syrian military would be guilty of violating the Just War principle that states that war is not a consent to do evil. While realists may assert that “all if fair in war,” allowing any use of force or application of evil to bring a speedy end to the conflict, Just War doctrine does not permit it. Military forces are not permitted to perform atrocities against combatants or civilians that our outside of normal war fighting tactics. Torture and sexual assaults certainly fall outside of this standard.

Discrimination

Identifying who are the combatants and who are civilians are often difficult in this type of conflict, however the government is obligated to proceed with due diligence to differentiate between the two. Discrimination is a major component of Just War doctrine.  Military forces are obligated to make every effort to protect and not engage innocent civilians. By most Western reports, the Syrian government has not abided by this principle by being indiscriminate in their attacks and pillaging of civilian material. Artillery salvos into populated city centers are sure to inflict many civilian casualties without a reasonable military purpose. The use of chemical weapons in population centers also has no way of discriminating between civilians and combatants, thus violating the doctrine of discrimination.

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United Kingdoms Justification for a Military Response

On 29 August 2013 the British government their legal position on possible military responses to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. This document, Chemical Weapon Use by Syrian Regime – UK Government Legal Position, “…sets out the UK Government’s position regarding the legality of military action in Syria following the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Damascus on 21 August 2013″[2].

The position of the United Kingdom is that Syria’s use of chemical weapons “amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity” by violating “the customary international law prohibition on [the] use of chemical weapons.” They maintain, however, that the previous use of chemical weapons is not their legal basis for intervention but rather, “humanitarian intervention [with the] aim [being] to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.” Over the course of the internal conflicts in Syria and with the resolutions being pursued in the United Nations Security Council, the United Kingdom is has sought to exhaust all other reasonable means to protect the innocent civilians of Syria, “averting a humanitarian catastrophe” [2].

Considering the West’s decision to take military action, using the United Kingdom’s legal position as its foundation, I will go through the five basic elements of Justice toward War and weigh the justifications given.

Proper Authority

The first principle to consider in Justice toward War is whether the wager of war has the authority to do so.  No individual can just decide to declare war.  War must be waged by a legitimate government based on their laws and regulations.  Considering the West, recognized countries can wage war or execute military action when determined to be justified and a reasonable course of action when they follow their country’s procedures.  For the United States, the President can authorized certain and limited military action, while it takes an act of Congress to actually declare war.

Just Cause

The second principle in Justice toward War is whether the reason for waging war is just.  Many have argued for decades that the West’s involvement in the Middle East has always been over oil and that any military involvement in that region is just to protect our oil interests in the region. While national interests do come into play in the political and military consideration of the use of force, unless citizens or property of that country is at risk, national interests alone should not be considered the just cause to go to war.

In the case of Syria, the use of chemical weapons against their own citizens and prevention of this recurring is the cause stated for the West’s consideration of using force. Since chemical weapons are disproportionate, inhumane and indiscriminate, they are not recognized as being a proper weapon in prosecuting a just war, therefore are in violation of accepted Just War principles and international law making their use by the Syrian government and the potential for their future use, a just cause for taking military action against them.

Right Intention

The criterion of right intention should produce regret when war is embarked upon.  Nobody should want to go to war, but rather reluctantly agrees to do so to bring about peace or a greater good than the resultant harm.  Considering the situation in Syria, the stated intention is to prevent future use of chemical attacks against Syria’s own people.  Assuming the effectiveness of military action, to prevent the greater harm of chemical weapons usage outweighs the harm that would come by using force against the Syrian government.  Thus the intention of preventing chemical attacks against Syrian citizens can be said to be a right intention.

Last Resort

While some will argue that you could always do more to avoid war, sometimes military force becomes necessary. However, the use of diplomacy, sanctions, embargoes and appealing to the United Nations are all measures that should be exhausted before committing to war. It is not often that what works in one situation will work the same in another.  Sometimes, diplomacy fails when other times it succeeds.  Sometimes sanctions and embargoes are effective while other times they don’t seem to make an impact.  Some situations require quicker action and leaves little time for non-military options to be exhausted.  All of these things must be taken into consideration when contemplating the use of force, and even when a decision is reached there will be much disagreement.  Nevertheless, if war is determined to be the last resort, it must eventually be executed.

For the Syrian situation, it appears that time is of the essence.  Again, many will argue that there are a number of other options, but time with the Syrian governments willingness to use chemical weapons and the availability of them, a decision to use force sooner rather than later may be the most ethical decision to make.

Reasonable Hope of Success

Before a nation engages another with military force, they must ensure that there is a reasonable hope that they will be victorious or at least accomplish the purpose of engaging in war.  If a commander sends his/her troops into battle knowing that they can not possibly win, he has violated this criterion of Just War. There is little doubt that the West holds superior military might to the Syrian government and any regimes that may ally with them, so this criterion is met in the situation with Syria, at least on the surface. To a lesser degree, the West also needs to consider the ramifications of military action against Syria, such as responses -both conventional and terror- by Syria, its allies and  Islamic extremists. The success of  the military action to accomplish its purpose must  be weighed against the consequences, intended and unintended, of that action.  Many of these consequences are largely an unknown, but at least reasonable doubt should be satisfied.

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In this article I have considered the Just War criteria for military action in Syria. While it can be asserted that miliary action in this situation could be defended as just the political, social and economic considerations could weigh heavily against military action. Public opinion, both in the West and the Middle East, should also be considered and could have an impact on any decision to go to war.

To say the deliberations concerning taking military action is complex is an understatement. At the same time, those at the highest levels of the government have more information about this situation than most of the public is privy to.  At the end of the day, the military is ultimately controlled by the civilians who make these decisions and will follow orders.  The use of force is never longed for, but when properly engaged in can be an effective means to bring about peace.

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[1] http://www.voanews.com/content/reu-syria-assad-says-war-is-only-way-to-crush-terrorism/1723700.html, accessed 29 August 2013.

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/chemical-weapon-use-by-syrian-regime-uk-government-legal-position/chemical-weapon-use-by-syrian-regime-uk-government-legal-position-html-version

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