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Why Syria is not yet 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 the only alternative to hand-wringing. It is by no means clear that all other means are 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.

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