When the United States, the United Kingdom, and France launched a missile strike on Syrian military facilities on April 14, in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in the city of Douma a week earlier, it renewed a debate among Christians in the United States over whether the resort to military force in Syria could be justified. Some took the same line as the Trump administration, that the use of chemical weapons against civilians was a violation of international law that demanded a military response to deter a similar attack in the future.
Although it is certainly an important aim to ensure that international norms are followed, this view fails to make clear what larger political aims U.S. military strikes are intended to further. The Christian just war tradition is premised on St. Augustine’s belief that military action can be morally justified only when it serves the interests of peace. In other words, for military action to be just, it must contribute to the common good, be carried out in a way that does not unnecessarily make the establishment of a just peace less likely, and be executed as a last resort. In Syria, therefore, the question faced by Americans is whether or not U.S. military intervention in Syria can contribute to lasting peace.
A central problem is the Trump administration’s lack of a strategic vision articulating its political aims in the Middle East. The administration’s Middle East policy is a combination of the president’s isolationist instincts and campaign slogans thrown together in incoherent, even contradictory, ways. For example, on the campaign trail Trump pledged to hit ISIS hard, but now that ISIS has been largely neutralized in northeastern Syria, in early April he requested that his military advisers craft a plan to withdraw American soldiers from Syria, with little thought given to whether this would enable ISIS to regain ground (as with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011), or to how such a withdrawal might strengthen the position of the Syrian government in the ongoing civil war.
In the twenty-first century, the Catholic Church has adopted the principle of the “responsibility to protect” as a guide for understanding the international community’s responsibility for promoting the common good in situations of conflict. In his 2008 address to the United Nations General Assembly, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the responsibility to protect means that the international community has an obligation to intervene when a government cannot or will not ensure the human rights of its citizens. As a matter of last resort, this intervention can include the use of military force, but it must also include foreign aid, diplomatic pressure, and peace negotiations.
What would it look like if the United States, together with the international community, pursued the responsibility to protect in Syria today? The ultimate goal must be a political solution to the conflict and the establishment of a government that could promote stability and hold legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the Syrian people. How could military intervention contribute to this goal? A large-scale intervention to topple President Bashar Assad would likely bring about further intervention by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran and neighbors such as Turkey and Israel, deepening the conflict. A missile strike such as that carried out by the United States and its allies in April is simultaneously too limited in scope to significantly affect the balance of forces on the ground, and provocative enough to risk an escalation in the conflict making a peaceful resolution further from reach. Likewise, President Trump’s proposal to have troops from the Persian Gulf states replace U.S. troops in Syria would risk enflaming sectarian and national animosities.
Instead, the United States should focus on reviving the Geneva peace talks on Syria’s political future. The United States’ continued military presence in the Kurdish-controlled northeastern region of Syria gives the United States leverage in such potential negotiations. U.S. forces could also cooperate with Russia and others to enforce a cease-fire during peace talks. The Trump administration’s lack of strategic vision and flagging diplomatic efforts under former secretary of state Rex Tillerson hampered these negotiations, allowing Russia to take the initiative in working towards a settlement more favorable to Assad. Without a strategic vision focused on the common good and the rights of Syrians, pursued through renewed diplomatic engagement, the United States cannot meaningfully contribute toward peace in Syria, and so Christians in the United States should articulate such a vision and pressure the administration to act on it.