Military intervention in Syria is not the answer to widespread suffering

With considerable ease, the United States and some of its allies have commenced a new war effort in the Middle East, thus far directing efforts to ‘degrade and destroy’ the Islamic State. Public officials have made remarkably little effort to justify interventions in Iraq and Syria to their domestic constituents and the international community. Can such a case be made?

Within the tradition of just war theory, scholars commonly recognise six criteria for determining whether undertaking a war is just. The meeting of all of these criteria is thought to be both necessary and sufficient for justly going to war.

First, we must determine whether there is a just cause for going to war. It is generally accepted that there are two just causes for going to war. The first, self-defence, allows states to go to war when facing imminent, significant threats. The US faces no such threat from the Islamic State. The second, the defence of others, justifies humanitarian intervention in states where the host state is unable or unwilling to protect innocent civilians from widespread atrocities. This kind of cause does exist in Syria, where several hundred thousand civilians have lost their lives since the commencement of hostilities in 2012. Yet the declared aim of US action in Syria is not to protect civilians – a task extremely difficult to achieve through air power alone – but to destroy and degrade one combatant. It is not clear how attacking Islamic State combatants will do anything to protect the many civilians who are at risk from other combatants in Syria, including the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Second, do the parties going to war have the right intention? That is, do they aim to actually secure the just cause, or are they using just cause as a pretense for other gains, such as material wealth or sovereign power? There is no clear evidence to date that the United States is using humanitarian concerns to cover for the pursuit of material interests in Syria.

Third, do the parties undertaking intervention have proper authorisation? In the case of humanitarian interventions in third party states, authorisation from multilateral institutions is often thought to justify intervention. The UN Security Council is the legal body that can authorise such action – or, in its absence, regional bodies such as the African Union, which endorsed intervention in Libya. In Syria, no such multilateral body has authorised intervention. Instead, there is yet another weak coalition of the willing, lending little legitimacy to rightful claims to intervene for humanitarian reasons.

Fourth, is war being made as a last resort? Diplomatic efforts and sanctions have failed in Syria, so it does appear that peaceful options have been exhausted.

Fifth, and most importantly, war in Syria must have reasonable prospects of successfully achieving the just cause. What confidence do we have that limited aerial intervention in Syria will help protect civilians? A year ago the US and its allies argued for bombing the regime. Now they argue for bombing the Islamic State. How will this limited aim protect civilians if it inadvertently helps the Assad government, which is responsible for most of the civilian deaths in Syria? And even if successful in slowing the progress of one combatant, what guarantee is there that this void will not be filled by another group that poses equally grave threats to civilians?

An alternative way to evaluate the likelihood of military intervention protecting civilian lives at reasonable cost is to look at the success rate of previous interventions. Failed governance in Iraq and Libya, persistent Taliban strength in Afghanistan, and resilient terrorist activities in the many countries targeted by American air power casts significant doubt on the likelihood that an aerial campaign – involving far fewer resources than had been committed to Afghanistan and then Iraq over a decade ago – could possibly succeed where past efforts have failed.

Finally, a war in Syria and Iraq must be proportional, which is best understood as follows: the number of civilians protected must well exceed the number of additional lives lost as a result of intervention. It is difficult to assess the proportionality claim. We have been promised a limited aerial intervention. But we do not know whether initial military action in Syria, and increased military action in Iraq, will unwittingly commit intervening forces to further military action down the road. Children who were five years old when the United States first invaded Afghanistan are now old enough to serve in combat there. This gives us reason to think that prospective estimates of the cost, and foreseeable harm, of any new military action is a highly uncertain business. We simply do not know whether the new war in Syria will be proportional because we don’t know how extensive the military campaign will be.

A war is thought to be just if it meets all the criteria listed above. As we have seen, it is extremely difficult to say that about intervention in Syria. Most importantly, intervention is not aimed at protecting civilians, and the prospects for civilian protection are low.

But the ‘do something’ brigade will argue that inaction is not an option in the midst of widespread killing and suffering. This is correct. But rather than intervene militarily, the US and its allies should increase financial support for heavily underfunded humanitarian operations serving the victims of war and significantly increase the number of refugees they permit to resettle within their borders.

Dr Scott Wisor, Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics, University of Birmingham