The moral case for military strikes against Syria

Commentary: Washington should focus on preventing further massacres, not on punishing Assad or restoring 'credibility'

Syrians inspecting bodies of adults and children killed in a toxic gas attack in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.

If Americans are to have an intelligent debate about whether the proposed military strikes against Syria can be justified, we must understand what the best argument in favor of these strikes is. This argument is that military action is necessary to deter and, to the extent possible, prevent further massacres of civilians, whether those massacres would be carried out with chemical or conventional weapons. Yet this simple argument seems to have eluded most commentators in the debate, including most supporters of the strikes, even within the Obama administration. Instead, public discussion on both sides has been clouded by a fog of rhetoric and confused reasoning.

Bad arguments

A variety of bad arguments have been advanced in support of the strikes. One ubiquitous assumption is that they would “punish” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons — or even punish him for insubordination, as Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested when he announced that “the things the president told Assad not to do, he did.” If, as seems highly likely, Assad has been responsible over the last two years for war crimes and crimes against humanity, whatever punishment he deserves should be administered through the procedures of an authorized institution, such as the International Criminal Court — not by cruise missiles.

A second bad argument is that strikes would be justified by America’s right of self-defense. President Obama claimed a few days ago that “there is a prospect, a possibility, in which [Syrian] chemical weapons that can have devastating effects could be directed at us. And we want to make sure that that does not happen.” Yet there is no foreseeable threat of the use of Syrian chemical weapons against the U.S., and even if there were, the military action being contemplated would do nothing to avert that threat.

Granted, statutory international law makes defense of a state against armed attack the only legal justification for the use of military force against another state, if that use of force has not been authorized by the U.N. Security Council. On this basis, security analyst Phillip Carter claimed in The New York Times that there is still no just cause for war against Syria, since it has not attacked another state. This, however, is a claim about law, not morality. And even as a claim about law, it ignores the fact that in customary international law (the unwritten part of the law grounded in the accepted practices of states), there is now some support for humanitarian intervention to prevent civilian massacres, provided that certain conditions are met.

Obama’s preposterous claim about Syria’s threat to the U.S. may not, of course, have been motivated by the search for a legal justification but may have been intended instead to assure American citizens that an attack on Syria would serve their interests. This was clearly the reason for the recent statement by a spokeswoman for the National Security Council that the administration’s decisions will be based on “the best interests of the United States.” But whatever American interests may be at stake in Syria, they do not provide the basis for a just cause for war. What would be reassuring would be for the administration to acknowledge that the best reason for the strikes has nothing to do with American interests.

Nor can the strikes be justified on the ground that they are necessary to maintain the “credibility” of the U.S. government. On Aug. 31, the top headline of The New York Times read, in part: “Officials Say Credibility Is at Stake.” The article beneath quoted Secretary of State John Kerry saying that “this matters also beyond … Syria’s borders. It is about whether Iran … will now feel emboldened in the absence of action to obtain nuclear weapons.” Yet neither the preservation of the administration’s credibility nor the sending of a message to Iran could be a just cause for military strikes against Syria. No one in Syria is morally or legally liable to attack for such reasons alone.

Most supporters of an attack against Syria seem to believe that the justification, both moral and legal, derives from the regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population. Some opponents argue, however, that so far there is no proof that the use of chemical weapons was authorized by the Assad regime. Some, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, claim that the chemical attacks were conducted by rebels to provoke Western intervention. There is, perhaps, a tiny possibility that this is true. There are other suggestions that the attacks were carried out by state forces without the consent or knowledge of the regime’s leaders. Yet these considerations constitute significant objections to striking Syria only if the chemical attacks are crucial to the case for striking. But they are not.

If there were a promising nonmilitary means of restraining the Syrian regime’s attacks on civilians, military strikes would be unnecessary.

Killing people with chemical weapons is not necessarily worse for the victims than tearing their bodies apart or crushing them through the use of conventional weapons. A massacre using chemical weapons differs from an otherwise comparable massacre using conventional weapons primarily in that it threatens the continued effectiveness of the legal prohibitions of the use of such weapons. The reason that chemical weapons are banned is not that they are significantly more inhumane than conventional weapons, but that their use against soldiers has a higher risk of harming civilians as a side effect than the use of conventional weapons. This is a good reason for banning them, and it is therefore a good moral reason for striking Syria that this would count, if only informally, as an enforcement of the prohibitions. But it is still only a secondary element in the moral case for striking military targets in Syria. (As a purely legal matter, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and military action specifically to enforce its adherence to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 — which prohibits the use of chemical weapons and to which Syria is a signatory — would appear to be legal only with the authorization of the Security Council.)

The right moral argument

The moral case for limited strikes against Syrian military targets derives from the killing of more than 100,000 people, most of them noncombatants, since the uprisings against the government began — killings that have forced vastly more noncombatants to become refugees. Government forces are responsible for the great majority of noncombatant deaths, and many of the killings have been intentional. That is, they have not been side effects of attacks on rebel combatants but acts of terrorism intended to bludgeon the civilian population into submission.

Yet the just cause for strikes against Syria is not to punish the regime for the many crimes it has already committed. Rather, these crimes demonstrate that the regime has no compunction about slaughtering its own citizens when it believes its own survival is at stake and that the killings will therefore continue until something is done to stop them. The just cause for striking Syria, then, is to deter and prevent the regime from engaging in further massacres of civilians, whether with chemical or conventional weapons.

When the U.N. Security Council authorized military intervention in Libya, what it permitted was limited to “necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” While the action of the intervening states clearly went beyond this limited mandate, most commentators at the time had no difficulty in distinguishing between the aim of preventing the killing of civilians by either side in the conflict and the aim of supporting one side against the other or trying to determine the outcome of the conflict. Yet those opposed to striking Syria overlook this distinction. For example, David Bromwich, whose political arguments are usually perceptive and persuasive, argues in the Huffington Post that “you can’t support the rebels now and watch in silence while they are hammered in retaliation.” Yet strikes against the regime to deter or prevent massacres of civilians would support the rebels only incidentally. The moral reason to attack state forces is equally a reason to attack rebel fighters if they were poised to commit an atrocity that a proportionate attack could prevent.

What Bromwich says one cannot do is precisely what Edward Luttwak recommends in his recent op-ed in The New York Times. The U.S. should “arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant,” Luttwak says, but “stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.” In this way “Washington’s enemies will be engaged in a war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.” This chilling indifference to Syrian civilians who would continue to be killed throughout the prolonged stalemate characterizes much of the commentary on both sides of the debate.

Another common claim is, as John Glaser puts it in the Huffington Post, that air strikes would have “no humanitarian utility” because they “won’t cripple the Assad regime’s military capacity.” But this is not an all-or-nothing matter. It is better to save some innocent people than to save none at all.

Much of the opposition to striking Syria — for example, that of British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband — is based on misleading comparisons with the invasion of Iraq, which was a ground invasion that itself threatened, and eventually took, the lives of even more civilians than the Assad regime has killed thus far. Prior to the decision to go to war in 2003, the Iraqi regime had not recently murdered tens of thousands of its noncombatant citizens, nor was it actively preparing to murder as many more as might have been necessary to remain in power. The Iraq War was thus not intended to prevent the killing of innocent civilians, but the strikes against Syria, to be justified, must be. The proposed strikes, therefore, bear much closer comparison with U.S. actions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya — and inaction in Rwanda.

If there were a promising nonmilitary means of restraining the Syrian regime’s attacks on civilians, military strikes would be unnecessary. But the proposals for alternatives have been perfunctory and unconvincing, usually consisting of rhetorical gestures toward negotiations. But why would the Assad regime have any interest in compromise when it can hope to retain full power in the absence of external intervention?

I lack the information and expertise necessary to be confident that limited strikes against Syria could be effective in deterring or preventing further massacres of civilians. If they cannot be expected to be effective in that way, they ought not to be conducted. But if they could be expected to be both effective and proportionate, the Obama administration has a strong case for conducting them, even if the president and his advisers seem incapable of pressing that case themselves.

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