Lens on the Middle East: Civil War vs. Inter-State War

This is Part 2 of a series on Christian responses to the conflict in the Middle East. 

In yesterday’s article, I examined the basic tenets of just war, the moral framework by which Christians and secular thinkers alike have long draw upon to argue the justice of war. As the U.S. considers military action in Syria and as we examine the ongoing conflicts taking place there, these moral considerations are imperative to consider.

The case in Syria though, moves beyond the traditional moral framework that I previously outlined. Why? The Syrian conflict is a civil, or intra-state war rather than an inter-state war. But as Daniel Philpott pointed out in Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation, “contemporary just war thought has little to say about civil war, the most prevalent kind of war in the last half century.” Yet the difference between such wars matters from a moral standpoint and a legal standpoint: it features war confined to a single sovereign territory (theoretically) and combatants not linked to an internationally-recognized state. In Syria, this complicates the moral calculus governing the action of both the actors within the war (President Assad and the rebels alike), and those external actors contemplating entrance into the conflict.

Despite Philpott’s observation, Michael Walzer, in his authoritative book Just and Unjust Wars, notes a few important principles that we might apply to such conflicts: 

  • Opposition, or guerilla forces, should be clothed so as to separate themselves from the civilian population (doing so supports the principle of non-combatant immunity, a principle of jus in bello, which we will look at next week)
  • Once the opposition gains its own footing, it is, for all intents and purposes, to be treated as an independent state in the international community. Foreign states are not to meddle in the civil war (thereby protecting the process of political self-determination); but if one state intervenes, then other states are morally free to do so as well.

Walzer’s norms suggest two important reflections for the war in Syria that must remain on our moral compass as the U.S. considers military action.

 "The case in Syria though, moves beyond the traditional moral framework [of just war theory]... The Syrian conflict is a civil, or intra-state war rather than an inter-state war." 

"The case in Syria though, moves beyond the traditional moral framework [of just war theory]... The Syrian conflict is a civil, or intra-state war rather than an inter-state war." 

First, given that Syria’s opposition has gained a “footing” in multiple senses (it holds large swaths of Syrian territory and it conducts diplomatic relations with foreign powers), it must be held to the same moral standards of conduct in war that other actors—namely, the Syrian state led by President Assad—are also obliged to respect. Opposition fighters should be encouraged to distinguish themselves in dress from the civilian population, and allegations of abusive practices should be met with the same condemnation applied against the Assad regime. Respect for the laws of war is always morally obligatory, but given U.S. pledges to arm the rebels and consideration of military action, demands from the U.S. to respect such norms become especially important and necessary (especially given allegation of rebel abuses).

Second, we ought to tread carefully in considering intervention, recognizing the good it is, in and of itself, that a people obtain their own freedom (the principle of self-determination, according to Walzer). This moral norm, suggests Walzer, is legally enshrined as the concept of sovereignty that governs much of international law and actions between states.

But this norm, we will remember, is suspended once other states intervene to influence the conflict’s outcome, and in this case, it’s undeniably clear that other state actors preceded the Western powers’ serious consideration of military action in Syria. Thus, the intervention of Russia, Iran, and the direct involvement of non-state actors such as Hezbollah (which are funded by state actors) would likely dictate that direct military action by Western powers can be justified, assuming its usage is proportional to the just cause (that of prohibiting Assad from using chemical weapons against civilians).

It is this “just cause” of inhibiting Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons that we will turn to in the next article, as we consider jus in bello more specifically and a moral case that has spurred extensive debate in the United States and in the United Nations: humanitarian intervention, and the moral case for intervening in the face of serious and protracted human rights abuses.

  -Aaron Korthuis currently works for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras on issues of citizen security. He graduated from Whitworth University in 2012, and will begin his legal studies at Yale Law School in the fall of 2014.