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Aug. 21, 2013Activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed in a toxic gas attack. Activists allege that rockets primed with chemical weapons struck at least seven locations; the government denies that accusation.Bassam Khabieh / Reuters
The reported use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21, leading to the deaths of at least 355 people, if not more, will certainly be a turning point in the Syrian conflict, which has already been a cause for moral horror.
More than 100,000 people have died in the conflict, at least half of them civilians. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have indiscriminately killed the residents of neighborhoods and villages in their efforts to defeat the rebels. Rebel forces have massacred and tortured captured soldiers, most notoriously in an incident captured on video in which a rebel ate the heart of a dead Syrian soldier. Islamist groups forming part of the opposition have also allegedly perpetrated violence against non-Sunnis in the north of the country.
Faced with these atrocities, the rest of the world is left wondering how to respond. Only recently, in 2005, the United Nations adopted the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which claims that when a state fails to protect the rights of its citizens, intentionally or not, the international community has the responsibility to intervene, using military force as a last resort. Since the conflict began, the United States and the nations of Europe have considered military intervention in Syria, and now that, after the chemical attack in Ghouta, some form of military intervention by the U.S. and its allies seems increasingly likely, thoughtful people are asking themselves whether this would be morally justified.
The Christian Just War tradition provides a helpful way of thinking through this question. The Just War tradition originates in two fundamental principles. First, political authorities have the responsibility to promote justice and protect innocent life, even using force if necessary. Although this responsibility belongs primarily to individual states, in our increasingly globalized world, states must also act through international institutions in the pursuit of justice. Second, the tradition insists that any sort of violence, because it involves the taking of life, is tragic. All warfare, even when justified, is to be regretted because it is made necessary by human sinfulness, and can easily become evil through that same sinfulness. Therefore the just war tradition proposes a set of criteria governing the decision to go to war and the conduct of war intended to put strict ethical limits on the use of force.
Although it is the first principle that kindles our desire to intervene in Syria, I believe that it is the second principle that renders military intervention in Syria unjustified and immoral. We live in a fallen world of injustices and conflicts without easy solutions. Clearly this does not mean we should do nothing, but we should have a sense of humility about the limits to our ability to perfect the world. The failure to recognize our limitations itself results from our sinfulness and leads to further injustice. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his 1991 encyclical
in regards to the moral failures of communism in Eastern Europe, the desire for control without limitations results in the resort to violence without restraint. Violence itself becomes redemptive, the ultimate tactic for restoring order in a broken world.
The call for military intervention in Syria arises from the desire to “do something” when faced with evil, yet it is not clear what intervention will accomplish. The just war tradition insists that the war be fought with a right intention, meaning that it is fought in pursuit of clearly defined objectives that will facilitate the establishment of lasting peace when the conflict ends; it also insists that there be a reasonable chance of success that those objectives can be met through the use of force. It is revealing that in our public officials’ statements to date on the possibility of intervention, they seem more certain that we will resort to violence than on what the purpose of that violence will be, whether to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities through surgical strikes or to create a no-fly zone to weaken the Syrian military and provide a safe haven for the opposition. Violence is a solution in search of a rationale. Our faith in redemptive violence blinds us to those outcomes more likely than peace if we intervene: the widening of the war through the more aggressive intervention of other powers such as Russia or Iran, or the coming to power of an Islamist regime in part of or the whole of Syria if we successfully topple Assad. The low chances of accomplishing a peaceful outcome also make the inevitable civilian casualties of any military strike especially unjustifiable.
Our misplaced faith in redemptive violence has put us in danger of violating other just-war criteria, as well. The use of chemical weapons is clearly a war crime, yet international law does not provide individual states with the authority to punish other states through military force; that authority resides with the United Nations Security Council. Finally, for a war to be just, the resort to violence must be the last resort, but the United States is sidestepping serious efforts toward a negotiated peace. Russia, the most important backer of the Assad regime and the primary obstacle to coordinated U.N. action on Syria, has remained open to a settlement in which Assad continues to play some role in the government, yet the U.S. seems implacably committed to total regime change. A negotiated settlement with U.N. backing is currently the more just course of action, and only then might a coordinated international intervention to force the major Syrian groups to comply be justified.
Right now, however, we are moving closer to putting our trust in violence without clear aims or outcomes.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Moral Theology at Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa, where he is also the Director of the Democracy and Global Diversity program.