Lens on the Middle East: What Constitutes Humanitarian Intervention?

This is Part 3 of a series on Christian responses to the conflict in the Middle East. 

Over the past few weeks, social media, newspapers, and our nation’s capital have been abuzz with debate over response to President Assad’s latest actions in Syria. But why the debate? What exactly has Assad done wrong, and what moral arguments or considerations exist for Christians seeking to faithfully apply just war theory to the conflict?

In the first two articles of this series, we looked at various aspects of this moral framework. First, we considered the most basic principles of jus ad bellum, or justice in deciding to go to war. In the second article, I examined the particular moral norms governing a civil war, a type of conflict that brings special concerns to bear on military action.

President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians brings us to the second major aspect of just war theory:jus in bello, that of acting justly in war. And as we will see, his decision to willfully ignore these rules provides the moral grounds on which Western powers might defend their decision to act—even if they do not express it in such terms.

First though, what defines jus in bello- or rather, those standards by which those engaged in military conflict are morally obliged to respect? While many different principles might apply, among the most commonly asserted are:

  • Noncombatant immunity (only armies, their weapons, facilities, etc. may be targeted)
  • Proportionality (in the use of force)

President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilian population appears to have broken these rules. Many thousands of civilians have lost their lives, and much to the ire of President Obama and others, they have been blatantly targeted civilians with chemical weapons designed to kill on a massive scale

But, the sad and unavoidable reality of war is that civilians always become “collateral damage” in war, a term that fails to capture the moral gravity of such loss of life. While we might not conclude that civilians caught in such conflict lose their lives justly, many have similarly concluded that those doing the killing cannot always be heldmorally accountable for such death, given the nature of war.

Here again, we turn to Michael Walzer, whose Just and Unjust Wars points to another principle of jus in bello that helps to further explain the principles I previously identified and the inevitability of civilian causalities.  Walzer contends that at times, it is morally permissible to perform the evil act of killing a noncombatant, if one abides by the doctrine of double effect. While the doctrine is too extensive to discuss in its entirety here, it essentially mandates that actions in war must have the direct effect of the act must be morally good (i.e. a military target) and the evil effect (the killing of a noncombatant) must be the aim of the action—essentially, one’s intentions must be right. Walzer goes on to add that the moral burden rests upon the one taking military action to minimize the evil effects of such by accepting costs to himself. Although this is an oversimplification of the matter, military action that meets these requirements would be considered morally justified in such circumstances, even if a noncombatant is killed.

  Syrian refugees at a refugee camp in Jordan. Courtesy of Amman Center for Human Rights Studies.

Syrian refugees at a refugee camp in Jordan. Courtesy of Amman Center for Human Rights Studies.

However chemical weapons (and other weapons of mass destruction) ignore these moral norms and produce the unacceptable result of massively violating the principle of noncombatant immunity. They break other norms of the doctrine of double effect as well, such as “legitimacy” (they are nearly universally condemned) and represent an absolute disproportional use of force (which from a moral standpoint, likely makes them completely unacceptable in whatever context).

But what does this mean for Syria? President Assad has clearly violated the rules of war as such, resulting in tremendous loss of life and the emigration of hundreds of thousands more. Syria is currently experiencing a humanitarian crisis on a large scale. But does breaking the rules of war and such rights abuses provide sufficient moral grounds for the argument of humanitarian intervention asserted in the U.S. and elsewhere?

This brings us back to the question of jus ad bellum, and specifically, the issue of “just cause” in war. Syria presents an especially difficult case. When genocide or the forced starvation of a people takes place in a context where those who are targeted are wholly defenseless, the moral argument for intervention is largely unambiguous: the scale of moral wrongs committed in such cases, and less of a people’s ability to determine their future (think again, Walzer’s principle of self-determination, as discussed in the previous article) provides a clear just cause for such action. Many cite Rwanda as the classic example of the need for such intervention, and as an emblematic case in which humanitarian grounds would provide clear moral justification for military action.

Syria is different. It is a civil war whose resolution is far from determined. Rebels and government forces alikecommit abuses (although the government’s certainly seems to be on a much large scale). Civilian loss of life, while lamentable and morally repugnant, is not of genocide-like proportions. It is a difficult moral case, and one that Christians are likely to be divided on, even as they faithfully attempt to apply the just-war framework to such a conflict.

Many may find that an unsatisfactory conclusion. Action in Syria might be morally ambiguous? Yes, it may be. But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from careful and thoughtful moral analysis. And it certainly doesn’t mean we cannot draw a number of concrete conclusions, guided by the moral framework embraced by many Christians. Based on our reflections over the past few articles, I have attempted to draw out a few points we might agree on:

  1. If Western powers do decide to act in Syria, such action should be very limited in scope.
  2. Regardless of whether military action is attempted or not, strong condemnations should be issued against violations of the rules of war and the rights of noncombatants wherever they are found, Assad’s and rebel forces alike.
  3. Aid should be provided to the victims of rights violations and the refugees flooding across international borders, especially into fragile states like Jordan. Western action on this matter is one that all Christians can agree on and respond to with vigor.
  4. Finally, when I first drafted this article, the possibility of an arms-transfer deal had not yet emerged. From the standpoint of just war theory, this deal, in so far as it would address the commonly asserted “just cause” of prohibiting Assad from using chemical weapons against civilians, presents a final possible diplomatic path to peaceful resolution of U.S.-Syrian tensions. It should therefore be pursued given that jus ad bellumrequires war only be utilized as a “last resort” (see the first article).

As I argued at this series’ outset, Christians should not shy away from this deep moral analysis. Together, our faith traditions have developed this deep moral framework that I have presented for considering military action in light of the fact that we live in a fallen and broken world. This framework is widely accepted both among Christians, and among our secular peers, thus allowing such debate to impact public discussion and considerations. While it may not always be easy to adopt a definitive position, our call to seek justice in all areas of life, even war, is no less diminished—and in fact, given the seriousness of war, and the terrible loss of life it so often provokes, responding to such a call is imperative as Christians.

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.