Syria attack: First, answer the questions

By Catholic News Service | September 4, 2013

Real difficulty about any intervention concerns proportionality

Here is an unsigned editorial titled “First, answer the questions” from the Aug. 31 edition of The Tablet, a London-based international Catholic weekly.

It seems beyond doubt that chemical weapons were used in late August against the people of Syria in residential areas of Damascus that had seen heavy fighting. It is almost beyond doubt that Syrian armed forces were responsible for this massacre, though the Russian government, one of Syria’s few friends, has insisted that the evidence is insufficient.

cartoon syria Joe Heller
(CNS illustration/Joe Heller)

Revulsion at the use of poison gas against civilian populations is entirely justified, but it does not follow, even if the facts are clear, that the international community has an automatic duty to intervene. There is a list of conditions that need to be satisfied first, not least that the civilian population at risk should gain some tangible benefit by way of additional protection. That has yet to be demonstrated.

International law and Just War theory both require legitimacy, which means either a U.N. Security Council resolution or some previously established binding principle. Both the 1925 Geneva Convention and the United Nations “Responsibility to Protect” resolution of 2005 have been cited as alternative legal grounds for action in the event of a Security Council vote being vetoed by a permanent member who is an interested party.

There are some instances where civilized norms have been so clearly and grossly violated that morality is reason enough. Nevertheless, international law is too important to the peace of the planet to be set lightly aside. The cavalier treatment of international law by Britain and America over Iraq still casts its shadow.

The real difficulty about any intervention against Syria concerns proportionality, which both law and Just War theory insist on. The means must be proportional to the end. The end in this case has to be to discourage or deter further attacks of the same kind. Merely to extract a price from the Assad regime by way of punitive missile strikes is not sufficient and the ruthless and vicious way it has treated the civilian population in the past, leaving chemical attacks aside, suggests it is well beyond the possibility of being influenced by the threat of further punishment.

Opinion in the West has a particular horror of poison gas as a legacy of the First World War, but someone like Assad does not share that memory. The same may apply to Russia — gas was mainly used on the Western Front — where Russia was not involved. The case against intervention becomes stronger when outcomes are as unpredictable as they are in this case, which makes proportionality — balancing ends against means — almost impossible to compute. What is the strategic aim?

The Syrian situation is fluid and complicated, with bad people on both sides. The possibilities of escalation are incalculable, including the risk of drawing Israel into the conflict.

Is it a Western objective to remove President Assad and hand the country to his enemies? Would that deliver chemical weapons into the hands of jihadist fighters, who are growing in strength among the rebel forces and who are aligned to al-Qaida? How does the West resist being drawn further and further into the Syrian morass, without an end in sight or indeed without knowing which side to favor? And fundamentally, what course of action by the West would help bring peace at last to the suffering people of Syria?

Those are key questions that need to be answered if armed intervention is to be justified, and at the moment it does not seem likely they can be.

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