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Just War in Syria?

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Over 1,300 Syrian civilians were killed in chemical weapons attacks last week, in what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called a "moral obscenity": "What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality... Make no mistake, President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people."

Syria's deliberate targeting of noncombatants violates international law, as well as ancient moral codes about the use of force, known as Just War tradition (JWT). But would U.S. military strikes on Syria, as President Obama is considering, constitute a just response?

St. Thomas Aquinas never imagined a world in which chemicals could kill thousands of people in a breath, but these old moral codes can still provide guidance in modern warfare. JWT is a centuries-old guide to thinking about when and how it can ever by morally justifiable to violate the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." JWT holds that even during warfare we are still capable of moral behavior, and still obligated to protect human life and dignity. JWT stakes out the middle ground between realpolitik, which always allows war, and pacifism, which never allows war.

Before entering combat there must be a just cause such as self-defense and the protection of human life. Certainly the Syrians have the right to use force to defend themselves against the military attacks of the Assad regime. But do external actors such as the U.S., Britain, and others, have a just cause to militarily intervene to protect Syrians from their own brutal government?

Beyond just cause, a whole package of JWT moral criteria must also be met. Only a right, public authority can enter into war, guided by the right intention of protecting peace and the common good. Force can only be used as a last resort, when success is possible, and the harms of war will not outweigh the reasons for going to war. During war, force must be discriminate and proportional. Civilians must be protected, not targeted. In discussing potential limited military targets, the Obama Administration shows attention to proportionality and discrimination.

The Syrian case is hard because it hits JWT on its growing edge, humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect (or "R2P"). Some just war thinkers propose that expanding just cause to include protection of civilians in humanitarian interventions should correspond with restricting right authority to only a right, public, international authority such as the United Nations, not a decision made unilaterally by a single state alone. The Responsibility to Protect takes this approach. R2P is a new international security and human rights norm, adopted in 2005, to address the international community's failures to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. R2P notes that the state has the primary responsibility for protecting its own civilians from atrocities. But if a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, as when the Assad regime perpetrates war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own citizens, then the international community has a responsibility to protect endangered civilians. R2P and JWT both prescribe non-military means be used first. But if peaceful humanitarian and diplomatic means fail, the international community must be prepared to use collective force authorized by the UN Security Council. Stipulating an international right authority is good in theory, to restrict states from defining military interventions as "humanitarian" that were more self-serving in nature. But restricting right authority to the UN Security Council raises the bar for intervention in a way that is difficult to reach. In practice it means only civilians in diplomatically isolated or pariah states could effectively claim a UN right to protection. For Syrians it makes international authorization near impossible, as Russia promises to veto any UN Security Council motion for intervening in its ally, Syria.

Probability of success and comparative justice (the idea that more good than harm will come of intervention) are the hardest Just War criteria to meet in the Syrian case. According to Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker as well as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, any military intervention may fail. President Assad is fighting for his life, literally, so he will fight no matter what the U.S. does, using every tool at his disposal. U.S. military intervention could make matters worse, according to General Dempsey. "We could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control."

Just War Tradition attempts to limit war, but here lies the problem. Limiting war, however laudable and needed in Syria, is not the same as building peace. The U.S. has made this mistake before. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration invaded with little attention beforehand to the most basic aspects of how they would build peace after invading. Today, the Obama administration attends to the tactics of war, but not the strategies of peace. They weigh tactical, operational questions of military logistics, basing, and targeting, the how-to of military destruction. But what sort of peace do we seek in Syria? If a U.S. military intervention helped topple Assad, who would govern the country and how? Too often the U.S. engages in military magical thinking. Yet the overwhelming predominance of the U.S. military power to destroy does not carry with it some magical power to easily create new political orders and institutions. Peace must be built, with time, trust, and societal participation, as described in emerging Just Peace moral criteria. JWT must be married to these just peace criteria. Syria shows how much we need an expanded toolbox for building just peace.