Shaky grounds for just war in Syria

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Street sign against blue skies, reads 'Peace Just Ahead'Although the desire for military action against Syria has been set aside in favour of negotiations, it remains on the table. War has always had its own brutal logic. As the Athenian ambassadors said to the islanders of Melos to whom they offered the alternative of subjugation or death, 'We shall not trouble you with specious justifications; and in return we hope that you will aim at what is feasible, since you know as well as we do that what is right is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.'

The Melians put a high value on their freedom and were slaughtered.

In western democracies such honesty is rare. Military action is normally sprinkled with justifications after it is a done deal. The other Athenian tradition of ethical reflection receives only lip service.

So it is important for citizens to ponder seriously whether the wars their leaders propose are just. There are questions for that. Even though they were formulated in a time when nations declared war on one another and soldiers marched to fight them, they remain pertinent.

Military adventures now resemble gunboat diplomacy more than war. Strong outside powers launch military assaults to secure their interests or to punish wrong suffered, often trying to influence conflicts within the targeted country. Restricted in their scope they are like policing actions

Nevertheless, the questions traditionally asked about the justice of wars give us a useful fix on the proposed Syrian intervention. The normal things that reflection on just war demand be established are that military action is for a just cause and is carried out primarily with that intention, that it is a last resort, that the harm done is outweighed by the good achieved, that its success can be reasonably predicted and that it is properly authorised. For military action to be justified all these conditions must be realised.

The standard examples of just causes given for war are self defence and the patent threat of an imminent attack. For limited military action, however, there may be other just causes. Those used to justify action in Syria have included support for factions opposed to President Assad, punishment for using poison gas against civilians, the need to destroy Syria's reserves of poison gas, and sending a message to Iran in its proxy war in Syria. Central to the right intention is that all military actions are thought through in such a way that they encourage peace.

Of these arguments, it is difficult to justify using death and other destruction caused by military action as a means to deter one faction or its external supporters from involvement. It would be a case of the end justifying the means. In themselves, the other reasons for military action could be justifiable if they meet other conditions.

Military force can be justified only if it is the last resort. In Syria it has rightly been postponed until complex negotiations with the regime and other interested parties have been opened and given time.

The crucial challenge to the morality of modern war comes from the disproportion between the harm done through it and whatever good it achieves. It is all too common to make a desert and call it peace. In police actions, though, and particularly in the use of drones, the disproportion between the targeted destruction of specific sites and the death and damage caused to others is much reduced. It might be possible to make out a case for limited action in Syria if other conditions were fulfilled.

But in any military action there also needs to be a similar proportion between the long term good effects of a military action and its harmful effects. By this criterion it is difficult to justify the use of force in Syria. Elsewhere military actions by outsiders have further polarised and militarised the conflict, and have led to the killing and expulsion of such minority groups as Christians. Intervention intensifies sectarian conflict and creates the demand for further military intervention.

To be justifiable, war must have a high probability of success. Success is defined by its contribution to peace. Intervention by foreign powers would need to be accompanied by a costly long term commitment to a peaceful Syria. This kind of commitment has been notably absent in other military adventures.

Finally, to be considered just, war and especially limited military actions must be properly authorised. Otherwise they amount to colonial gunboat diplomacy. It is difficult to see how a single nation can authorise military action against another unless it is unjustly threatened. And that authorisation must be formally sought.

For nations not involved in a conflict, it would be unjustifiable for them singly or in a group to authorise military force. It would need support in the international forum, particularly if the action was punitive in character. The grounds given for going to war and the evidence for them could be properly tested. Military action in which people are picked out for killing without trial and without formal international authorisation is unjustifiable.

When reflected on through this lens, the proposed military action against Syria lacks justification. Even if the cause for it were just, it would be vitiated by the lack of proportion between the limited good secured by it and the increased violence and sectarian division that will surely follow. It would also lack due authorisation.

That the strong should do what they can and the weak suffer what they must is real politik. But it should not be dignified with the name of justice.


 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Peace street sign image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Syria, Just War, Assad

 

 

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Military intervention in Syria, as proposed by Barack Obama and temporarily put on hold following acceptance of the Assad regime's agreement to declare and destroy its entire chemical weapons stock would have been entirely disproportionate. The results to it would probably play out in similar fashion to those of George W Bush's "War on Terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq: disastrously and counterproductively. American political naivete about the Middle East is breathtaking and the results of its intervention there uniformly disastrous. I believe Israel, an inveterate foe of Syria and its Iranian and Hezbollah backers, regards the proposed military intervention as highly dangerous and destabilising in an already volatile region and does not back it. Robert Fisk, long term Middle East resident and correspondent of the Independent of London, says that intervention in Syria on behalf of the opposition there is tantamount to joining forces with Al Quaida. I believe 50% of the forces opposed to Bashar Assad are of the Salafi jihadist variety. Their victory would be disastrous and potentially fatal to anyone opposed to their version of Islam. As Tony Abbott said, there are no good guys in this civil war. Military intervention is no magic wand. It should neither be contemplated nor used.
Edward F | 18 September 2013


From the safety of Australia we cannot fully enter into a debate about the best approach to the Syrian crisis. The suffering must be well beyond our comprehension. What should be clear though is that military intervention will only escalate the suffering of ordinary Syrians. Whatever Putin's motivation his intervention has saved the West from another huge mistake where we empower groups who later prove to be even more tyrannical than the initial "enemy".
Martin Loney | 19 September 2013


If a limited clinical strike against Assad`s personal, political and military assets led to a moratorium on further gas attacks on civilians, then surely that would be just?
Eugene | 19 September 2013


The Threat often accomplishes more than its fulfilment. As long as there is not so much condemnation of the threat as to make it seem like a “paper tiger.”
Robert Liddy | 19 September 2013


Why does the solution to situations in warzones have to be either total inaction or full-out war? it seems more like face-saving theatrics and political puppetry when the US and its allies launch into wars such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when world leader starting realising privately they'd made a bad judgment in Iraq, was the reason to stay and keep the operation going really for the sake of Iraq? Or to save face politically?
AURELIUS | 20 September 2013


'My subject is War, and the pity of War,' said Wilfred Owen, in the Preface to his "Collected Poems". He went on: 'All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.' Owen's own Christian faith did not survive the suffering that he saw. He refused, however, to be silenced. (From Nicholas Lash's "Holiness, Speech and Silence".)
Pam | 21 September 2013


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