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Humanitarian Intervention in Syria: A Classic Just War?

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Morally, Syria, like Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, could be seen as St. Augustine's classic case for a just war: love of neighbor may, at times, permit, even require, the use of force to protect the innocent. According to Pope John Paul II, the international community has not only a right but a duty to intervene to "disarm the aggressor" when "the survival of populations and entire ethnic groups is seriously compromised." The international law concept of a responsibility to protect (R2P) makes similar moral claims.

Augustine, John Paul II and R2P are part of a just war tradition which insists, contra many realists, that war, while sometimes necessary, must be strictly governed by moral norms, not just national security interests. Just war norms are divided into two sets of criteria. Jus ad bellum criteria restrict when and why it is legitimate to go to war: there must be just cause, generally limited to defense against aggression; the decision must be made by a legitimate authority; the war must be fought with a right intention, i.e., only in pursuit of the just cause; there must be a reasonable probability of success; the overall destruction expected from war must be proportionate to the good to be achieved; and force must be a last resort, after peaceful alternatives have been exhausted. Jus in bello criteria restrict how one conducts a war: noncombatants may not be directly, intentionally targeted; and the "collateral" damage caused by individual acts of war must not be disproportionate.

Syria would seem to be Exhibit A for a just military intervention, especially if one focuses on two key criteria, as many advocates of military intervention do.

Just cause? Human Rights Watch and others have accused Assad's brutal regime of crimes against humanity. And as the civil war intensifies, civilians on all sides will only be more at risk.

Last resort? A recalcitrant and unapologetic regime has mostly ignored, dismissed or failed to comply with numerous attempts by the U.N., the Arab League and others to protect civilians and resolve the conflict.

There are three problems with this just war analysis: it is incomplete, excessively permissive and unconnected to a peacebuilding ethic.

Incomplete. Just cause and last resort are critically important, but other just war criteria must also be met. Humanitarian intervention is dismissed by many, especially small countries likely to be its target, as an oxymoron. It is rightly feared that "humanitarian war" provides a convenient cloak for new forms of imperialism and self-interested violations of state sovereignty. In just war terms, it raises issues of right intention. Sunni Arab states, the United States, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Iran? The ulterior motives of potential interveners -- not to mention those of their disparate Syrian partners -- would belie their humanitarian justifications. Mixed motives always exist, of course. But Syria is at the vortex of multiple Middle East conflicts. Humanitarian intervention would likely be just a convenient pretext for the pursuit of myriad self-serving political and security agendas.

That is why the legitimate authority criterion is so important. If norms of sovereignty and non-intervention are to be overridden, there must be politically, legally, and morally legitimate processes for doing so. Authorization by the U.N. Security Council would enhance the legitimacy of an intervention, could mitigate risks of abuse by self-interested states, and could enhance support for, and thus prospects for success of, an inherently complex and difficult intervention. But the U.N. Security Council is incapacitated by Russia and China's veto. Authorization by a regional body, such as the Arab League, could conceivably meet the requirements, but its legitimacy, especially in this case, is questionable. It is difficult to see how any unilateral intervention could be disinterested enough to qualify as humanitarian.

Permissive. The just war tradition is highly restrictive; it is about limiting, not legitimating, war. Especially given the negative, unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences of military intervention in places like Syria, the strong presumption must be against the use of military force. Yet, advocates for humanitarian intervention are tempted to embrace a permissive just war ethic. Their presumption is not against war, but for justice. Humanitarian intervention then risks becoming, a la Clausewitz, an extension of politics, not their failure -- one more tool in the toolkit of protecting human rights and maintaining stability, not a threat to those laudable goals.

In contrast, a restrictive just war ethic is deeply skeptical of the efficacy of military intervention, especially for humanitarian ends. Humanitarian interventions rarely bring the freedom, justice or lasting peace envisioned when they are begun. We must be realistic about the consequences of not acting in Syria, but equally realistic about the consequences of doing so. A limited, Libya-style military intervention could conceivably succeed in establishing safe havens or replacing a tottering regime with far less loss of life than a prolonged civil war. But a Libya-style intervention might also be little more than a set of inadequate tactics impersonating a strategy. Would intervention, in fact, protect civilians? The regime might fall, but would a successor be significantly better? Would the interveners have the staying power to assist in the long-term process of post-war nation building? The experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya should be reason enough to discard any permissive approach based on best-case scenarios for the likely good to be achieved by humanitarian intervention.

Unconnected to peacebuilding. R2P is intended to refocus the debate from military interventions to developing the capacities of states like Syria to meet their obligations to their own citizens. What advocates of military intervention in Syria tend to neglect is the relationship between an ethic of intervention and an ethic of peacebuilding. A restrictive just war ethic that permits limited, mostly non-military, forms of multi-lateral humanitarian intervention depends on finding more effective ways of conflict prevention, conflict management and post-conflict reconciliation. This just war analysis has to be tied to a much broader ethic and international effort to address the root causes of these internal conflicts, to support the spread of democratic and just political and economic orders, to prevent conflicts and settle them promptly and peacefully when they erupt, and to help rebuild and heal broken societies. Military intervention would be relatively easy; building a more stable, just and peaceful Syria would not be.

In Syria, there is a clear answer to Cain's question: "Yes, we are our brother's keeper." Act we must! But the clear moral preference is for continuing and vigorous interventions short of war-fighting that is married to a long-term peacebuilding strategy.

Gerard Powers is Director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.