“Moral factors cannot be ignored in war … Moral elements are among the most important in war,” wrote Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. “Without just cause nothing that follows can be justified, even if it can be more and less virtuous,” writes ethicist Nigel Biggar in his book In Defence of War.
Almost unique among modern ethicists, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University presents a forceful case against the pacifist “virus of wishful thinking.” He even contends, rather provocatively, that the 2003 Iraq invasion was justified. Biggar rejects “Hobbesian realism” and declares himself an adherent of “Augustinian realism,” drawing deeply on the Augustinian tradition of Just War.
There are times when war can be and indeed should be the moral response to grave wrongdoing. The most serious flaw in the West’s intervention in Syria’s civil and religious war (for that is what it is) is our lack of justification for the morality of going to war with Assad and sending American troops to Syria in the first place.
Pragmatic arguments about regional politics and supporting the Kurds are valid but not sufficient to go to war or to expend American lives in theatre. At the end of the day, “there are no good guys in an Islamic civil war,” writes Daniel Greenfield. Moreover, “there are no innocent victims in an Islamic civil war because neither side believes in anything except demonstrating the Allahu Akbaring supremacy of their religious doctrine by subjugating the other,” he adds.
Hence exploring the moral question becomes an even greater imperative. So far, no religious or political leader has argued persuasively the morality of even one of the six criteria of the Just War model to justify the morality of our intervention in Syria. Are we on the ground or in the air over Syria because of just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality or prospect of success?
In 2013, Trump tweeted: “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.” Later, in April 2018, Trump added that the US had gotten “nothing out of $7 trillion [spent] in the Middle East over the last 17 years.”
A cause cannot be just if it is not based on truth. The Just War theory flounders in a postmodern society where justice and truth have parted company. Justice is redefined as ‘social justice’ and ‘truth’ is jettisoned in favour of relativism, perspectivalism, propaganda, pragmatism, and the will to power.
Justice cannot be based on falsehood or error. In formulating the Just War theory, Augustine of Hippo and his predecessors would have presumed the overlapping of justice and truth. The Bible treats justice and truth as synonyms when used in poetic parallelism.
“Justice is turned back,” writes the prophet Isaiah, “for truth has stumbled in the public squares. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.” God asks Jeremiah to search the public squares in Jerusalem “to see if you can find a man who does justice and seeks truth.”
In justifying the strike on Syria or in debating troop-withdrawal, General Matthis and the Western coalition must answer the just cause criteria on two grounds: First, is it true that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack on civilians in Douma killing 42 and injuring 500 others? Second, does this cross the threshold for intervention as laid down by international conventions?
In February 2018, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis categorically stated that the US had no evidence to confirm reports that the Syrian government had used sarin on its citizens. The jury was still out on earlier chemical attacks such as Ghouta (2013) and Khan Sheikhoun (2017).
In April 2018, Mattis told Congress he “believes” (not “knows”) that there was a chemical attack at Douma on April 7 and “we are looking for the actual evidence” (not “we have found actual evidence”). “As each day goes by – as you know, it is a non-persistent gas – so it becomes more and more difficult to confirm it,” he said.
Syrian physician Dr Assim Rahaibani, a source on the ground (though not an eyewitness) in Douma, said that his patients were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the tunnels and basements in which they live on a night of heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.
One thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history if we ignore the error on the part of the intelligence services, not just of the UK and the US, but also of all other Western countries and of Russia when it claimed Saddam Hussein was in possession of WMD. Even Hans Blix, the head of the 2003 UN weapons inspection team, believed it.
First, there is the question of motive. Assad has been winning the war against the rebels. His use of chemical agents would snap his precarious position with the West. Why not use conventional weapons as he has in the past with devastating brutality? Why chlorine and not sarin? Chlorine is a choking agent not considered a weapon of mass destruction. Assad’s regime has stocks of sarin and mustard gas, not chlorine, according to the US Congressional Research Service report.
If chlorine was used, why has the West ruled out the possibility that the rebels may have been responsible for the attack? The rebels are radical Muslim groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra—an al-Qaeda affiliate, as Charles Lister documents in The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.
Al-Qaeda has been working to acquire chemical, biological and radiological weapons. Al-Qaeda in Iraq detonated a series of crude chlorine bombs in Iraq from late 2006 through mid-2007. A study by the New America Foundation found a total of 16 chlorine gas bombings in Iraq, the last of which was in June 2007. On October 21, 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq launched chlorine bomb attacks by detonating a car loaded with mortars and chlorine tanks in Ramadi.
According to the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee Butler report (2004), between October 2002 and February 2003 al-Qaeda was involved in the production of chemical and biological agents in Kurdish northern Iraq. Rolf Ekeus, Swedish head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq from 1991-1997, warned in 2003 of “the chance that Iraqi chemical weapons specialists would sign up with terrorist networks such as al Qaeda … The chemical and biological warfare structures in Iraq constitute formidable international threats through potential links to international terrorism.”
Islamic terrorists such as Hamas who use women and children as human shields will have no compunction unleashing a chemical attack against civilians to provoke Western military intervention against Assad. Islam, particularly in the theatre of jihad, sanctions the stratagem of Taqiyya or dissimulation.
Second, for a war to be just its cause would have to be sufficiently grave. The only kind of sufficiently grave reason specified by international law is genocide. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report The Responsibility to Protect specifies the “just cause threshold” and extends genocide to a “large-scale loss of life” or “large-scale ethnic cleansing.” The massacre in Douma does not satisfy this requirement.
Ethicist Michael Walzer argues that the first questions asked when states go to war, such as “who started the shooting?” are “questions of fact, not of judgment, and if the answers are disputed, it is only because of the lies that governments tell. The lies don’t, in any case, detain us long; the truth comes out soon enough.” It did in the case of Iraq; it has in the case of Syria.
Thirdly, it was the French who created Syria as a political fiction. The Greeks had bestowed this nomenclature to describe this geographic region, but there was never a “Syrian” nation before 1946. The forced clumping together of Alawite, Druze, Kurd, Assyrian Christian and Sunni Arab has been an unmitigated political disaster but the perfect opportunity for Islam to establish its supremacy.
“Russia and the West are fighting to decide whether Syria will be run by Sunni Islamists backed by Saudi Arabia or Shiite Islamists backed by Iran,” warns Daniel Greenfield. Deciding whether to support Sunni or Shiite Muslims in a holy war is a casus belli devoid of any Just War morality.
“This insane civil war has burned up countless lives, not to mention plenty of dollars, rubles, euros and pounds. The only certain winners of this war, once the dust has settled, will chant ‘Allahu Akbar’ and call for the death of the infidels.”
For the Augustinian-influenced West, a “holy” war must be a Just War or we will, by proxy, end up fighting an Islamic holy war. It is a war only Islam can win.