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What should we do about Syria?

By Nigel Biggar


It could well be that current negotiations between the United States, France, and Russia will lead to the Assad regime’s surrender of its chemical weapons. Everyone — bar the regime itself — has a legitimate interest in seeing that happen. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria drags on, in which far more people have been killed — and will yet be killed — by conventional weapons than by chemical ones. What stance should we take toward this complex conflict, morally speaking? The following answer to that question operates in terms of the ‘just war’ theory that runs from Augustine through Grotius to the present day.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad, like that of his father, has shown itself to be ruthless and indiscriminate in its repression of dissent. The uprising began in March 2011, when ten children in Deraa, aged between nine and fifteen, wrote an anti-regime slogan on the wall of their school, which read “Down with the system!” For this crime the Syrian authorities had them arrested, sent to Damascus, interrogated — and apparently even tortured. This provoked a peaceful protest in Deraa of several thousand people, on which Syrian security forces opened fire, killing four. The protest then balooned to about twenty-thousand. Again the security forces opened fire, killing at least a further fifteen and wounding hundreds. Subsequently, President Assad refused to punish the governor of Deraa, who was his cousin.

Since then, according to the strong implication of the UN inspection team’s report on 16 September 2013, it seems that the regime has been willing to add the use of chemical weapons to its armoury of repression. And according to another UN report published the week before, as well a recent letter in the Lancet by medical experts, the regime has also been waging war by deliberately targetting hospitals and medical staff.

What does this mean, morally? It means, first of all, that the regime is quite ruthless in its determination to annihilate dissent, and that this ruthlessness is not peripheral, but central, to it: President Assad refused to act against the authorities who had arrested and tortured teenagers, thus implicitly owning what they had done. This made the Deraa incident symptomatic and characteristic of the political system, not merely accidental and eccentric. Had it been eccentric—had there been a reasonable prospect of the regime repudiating it—then negotiation would have been possible, and recourse to armed resistance premature. But because Deraa was characteristic of the regime, armed rebellion against it was a last resort — which is one of the criteria of just war.

Secondly, the story that I’ve just told shows that the uprising developed from peaceful protest to armed resistance in urgent self-defence against the grave injustice of systemic ruthlessness. Grave injustice constitutes just cause for taking up arms, and the defence of the victims of such injustice constitutes right intention — which endows the rebellion with two further marks of just war.

Thirdly, the history of the uprising and its exposure of the regime’s ruthless character demonstrates that the Assad regime does not deserve to rule. It lacks the moral authority, and in that sense, political legitimacy. Since political legitimacy is a further requirement of just war, insofar as the Syrian government lacks it, its campaign of repression is unjustified.

However, political legitimacy is made up of more than just moral authority. It also comprises popular support. Here the Assad regime’s moral status becomes ambiguous. For by presenting itself as the protector of minorities against the Muslim Brotherhood or worse, the regime has retained the loyalty of close to half the Syrian population (according to the Syria expert, David Lesch). What’s more, the rebels are not in a position to offer a coherent alternative to the Assad regime, since they are riven with political disagreement. Nevertheless, again according to Lesch, it is not true that the rebels are dominated by salafist jihadists such as al-Qaeda.

So what policy should Britain and other Western countries adopt with regard to what’s going on in Syria? We could decide that, although the civil war is terrible and tragic, it’s just not our problem — our national interest is not at stake. That needn’t be immoral, since there’s more injustice in the world to sort out than we can; and we’re not morally obliged to do what we can’t. However, those states that are permanent members of the UN Security Council — such as Britain, France, and the United States — are obliged to look beyond their own immediate national self-interest and to give leadership in shouldering global responsibility.

What does that mean with regard to Syria’s civil war? No one wants another Iraq. We want an ordered transition to a more responsible, and so more stable, form of government in Syria, and thus an end to a bloody civil war that disturbs the whole region. Given the level of popular support that Assad retains, that will require political compromise rather than simple regime-change.

For there to be a negotiated settlement, the Assad regime will have to be persuaded that it cannot win militarily. One way or another, the battlefield will have to be levelled. One way would be for Russia and Iran to cut off their support of the regime. Another way would be for the West to increase its military support of the rebels.

If Russia and Iran could be persuaded by simply diplomatic means to apply due pressure, that would be ideal. But note that Russia’s dramatic volte face with regard to disarming Assad of chemical weapons only happened under the threat of Western military strikes. Sadly, in a world where people don’t always want to do what they should, the sight of a big stick is often necessary to induce the nibbling of the carrot.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford. His book, In Defence of War recovers the tradition of ‘just war’ reasoning that runs from Augustine to Grotius, and develops it in relation to the First World War, NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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Image credit: Syrian Mujahid soldier with rifle. Image available via iStockPhoto.

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