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A military strike on Syria will not fulfil the criteria for a Just War

2013 August 28
by Paul Vallely

A shiver of apprehension ran down my spine when I heard that Downing Street has said the UK is drawing up contingency plans for military action in response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria. And the Foreign Secretary William Hague said that unilateral military action might be needed without the sanction of the United Nations.

We have been here before, as we were reminded when Tony Blair joined the debate this week and said that the enduring controversy over his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 should not stop politicians from acting now on Syria.  We should stop wringing our hands, he said. But military action is not the only alternative to hand-wringing. It is by no means clear that all other means are not exhausted.

In the United States President Obama painted himself into a corner last year by saying the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” which, if crossed, would force US intervention.

Now they have indisputably been used. Yet though the West seems of one mind that the Assad regime is responsible we have not yet seen the proof, and that matters. Chemical weapons, Washington said this week, were a “moral obscenity”. Some weapons are certainly more horrific than others. Chemical weapons raise our levels of disgust and outrage. But it is not clear that they alter the moral argument.
An application of the precepts of the just war shows this. Intervening to prevent the killing of children and other innocents is clearly a just cause. Right intention is evident too.  But the just war criteria demand that force is a last resort, has competent authority, is proportionate and has a good prospect of success. None of these are fully present.

Though the international diplomatic situation is fixed it is not yet a stalemate. Russia has made movement in agreeing to force Syria to allow UN weapons inspectors to the site where 300 or more died last week.  Competent authority would suggest a resolution by the UN Security Council, on which Syria’s allies Russia and China have a veto. The requirement is not absolute; Kosovo was a just intervention without a UN resolution but Iraq showed how problems can arise from precipitate action.

Proportion sounds plausible, with the talk of a single air strike to signal to President Assad that he cannot use chemical weapons with immunity. But history shows that air strikes have a tendency to escalate. In the past they have led to Western boots on the ground and situations from which exit strategies become tricky to devise and which radicalise the opposition. But escalation could also spread the conflict to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Israel and even Iran. Where would arguments about proportionality stand then?

And the “prospect of success” is deeply problematic too, for it is not even clear what would constitute success?  The shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, was insightful on this when he asked whether military action would or could simply “degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capability” or whether it would involve taking sides in a bitter civil war.  Since al-Qaeda is prominent in the rebel alliance this is not a simple matter.

The outraged demand that “something must be done” should not bully us into doing the wrong thing. A signal needs to be sent to President Assad that he cannot use chemical weapons with impunity. But it could yet be diplomatic. Russia and Iran were both pressured to shift on their intransigence against UN weapons inspections. That has shown that the international disunity on which the Assad regime has relied need not be permanent. There is more to be achieved by diplomacy before the Cruise missiles are dispatched.


from The Church Times

2 Responses
  1. Francis permalink
    August 28, 2013

    Is there a word missing in the second paragraph, second last sentence, “not”. Or I may be mistaken?

    Interesting piece.

  2. September 16, 2013

    Many thanks for spotting that. PV

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