U.S. Response to the Douma Attacks: A Just War Perspective

Responding to: Ethics of the Syrian Intervention

By: John Kelsay

May 14, 2018

The hallway near my office at Florida State features a homemade sign. The central image is a hand drawing of the Syrian flag. Above the image, one reads “NO WAR IN SYRIA!” Below, the message urges readers to “Say No to US Imperialism!” and “Say No to US Military Intervention!”

There is no indication of a person or group responsible for this poster. However, its appearance followed shortly after the April 14 strikes by U.S. and allied forces on air bases and equipment allegedly used by the Syrian government in a chemical attack in Douma a week earlier. Let us take it, then, that the point is to oppose that particular action. 

What shall we say about these strikes? Here, I am interested in providing a response consistent with the just war tradition. The vocabulary of jus ad bellum and jus in bello (that is, the justice of going to war and of conduct within it) is in one sense very old. At the same time, contemporary interpreters of the tradition insist it has something to say about our world. Let us think about the matter, first in terms of the problems posed by chemical weapons, and second in terms of U.S. involvement in the Syrian war.

Chemical and biological weapons are outlawed in numerous modern treaties, and their use by some participants in the Syrian conflict may fairly be described as criminal. The judgment that such weapons ought not be used may actually be very old, however. In his account of the Roman code of just war, Cicero covers the ancient version of this under the category of “nefarious means.” Right conduct in war does not allow for the use of poisons, just as it does not allow for violations of agreements with one’s enemy. In a survey of historical and contemporary arguments about chemicals, gases, and the like, James Turner Johnson suggests that three factors contribute to a seemingly unanimous negative judgment. First, the weapons are difficult to use in ways that distinguish civilian and military targets. Second, they are relatively cheap, easy to produce, and are thus available to even the most irresponsible actors. And third, since defense against such weapons is difficult, those who suffer an attack are left with the option of responding in kind. The result is a spiral in which attack and response lend themselves to an escalation of hostilities, thus working against the possibility of peaceful resolution once war ends. 

We might consider all of Johnson’s points with respect to Syria, since it seems that both governmental and opposition forces may be guilty of violations. With respect to some of these attacks—Douma being a case in point—it is difficult to discern even an attempt to distinguish combatants from noncombatants. Rather, the point is to harm civilians and thus to break the morale of President Bashar Assad’s opponents. 

By contrast, the allied missile strikes were aimed at military targets, and thus seemed to satisfy just war concerns regarding civilian protections. There are other factors to consider, however, and these raise questions about the moral standing of the U.S. response.

We may put the point this way: The point of the just war tradition is to encourage policies that are both wise and just. Those making decisions about the use of force are not only to consider whether an enemy’s provocation constitutes a just cause. They are also asked to identify a goal consistent with the aim of peace, to ask whether there is a reasonable chance of success in meeting that goal, and whether or not the costs of action are proportionate to the benefits. 

In this case, it is difficult to see how the allied attack on April 14 meets the standard. Those speaking for the defense suggest that the point had to do with prevention and deterrence: to make it more difficult for the regime to mount further attacks, and to make the Syrian leadership think twice before trying again. Some added the idea that the post-Douma strikes might be a way for the United States to stay involved, so as to remain relevant in a post-war (and post-Assad) Syrian future. 

The problems with such reasoning seem clear. In the face of advances by government forces and the growing influence of Russia and Iran, the ability of the United States to influence a post-war settlement seems small. As to the prevention/deterrence argument, what shall we say about the continuation of chemical attacks following a previous U.S. strike in April 2017? Perhaps this bought a little time, but the lesson of Douma seems to be that the Syrian government will make use of these weapons whenever they promise an advantage. U.S. and allied responses are thus simply a part of the cost of doing business. Perhaps, then, we do well to turn our attention elsewhere. Barring a turn of events, the end game now points toward victory for Mr. Assad and his allies. The question for just war thinking may thus become a matter of how to prevent a post-conflict attempt to eliminate any and all Syrians who ever deigned to speak a critical word about the policies of their government.

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U.S. Response to the Douma Attacks: A Just War Perspective