Examining the Syrian Crisis Through the Lens of the Just War Theory

This post was written for the Conditions of War and Peace class I am currently taking. Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

The Case of Syria
After this week’s class, focused on just war and intervention, it would be interesting to examine the case of Syria against the Yugoslavia and Libya examples used in the lecture. Before I get into Syria, let us review the underlying concepts.

Just war is used to describe a combination of a just cause, such as the defense of one’s homeland against an invasion, and legitimate means, i.e. proportionality and distinction.

Proportionality refers to trying to minimize casualties and property damage by inflicting no more harm than one expects to gain benefit.

Distinction refers to the practice of separating combatants and non-combatants.

Intervention refers to the use of military force either to prevent a humanitarian disaster, i.e. when a dictator is slaughtering a vulnerable population, or alternatively, international organizations can come together to act as supportive government when a government is too weak, poor, or otherwise incapable to provide security to its population (a failed state). A failed state can come around as a result of a war, international or civil, or even as a result of a well-meaning intervention.

Yugoslavia is widely used as an example of failure of the international community to act in a timely matter to prevent mass casualties. Although limited to a massive civil war in a localized area, Yugoslavia presented a cause for concern for a number of international actors. It was also the chessboard where various political interests were played out before any action was taken to protect civilian population. Europe had an interest in ending violence that set a dangerous precedent for the war-ravaged continents, which had finally enjoyed peace and relative stability for the past several decades. Russia identified with its Serbian Slavic “brethren” and sided with them during all the follow-up conflicts. The United States initially stayed out, but with NATO late in the gained, air bombed Serbia after the Srebrenica massacre to protect Muslim population. UN condemned the violence, but did not actually get involved in the conflict, opposing the idea of international organizations getting involved in a local civil war. Regardless, much of the discussion is focused on the perception that NATO acted too late and could have saved many lives. IN the later follow-up conflicts, NATO did get involved at earlier stages. Currently, former Yugoslavia Federation republics are enjoying peace and stability as independent states.

With Libya, Colonel Qaddafi, the dictator who ended up agreeing to give up his nuclear arsenal after the ousting of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, ended up squashing initially unarmed uprising and showing overwhelming force in Benghazi and Tripoli. UN, forewarned by the unfortunate events in Yugoslavia, passed resolution 1973, which created no-fly zone against Qaddafi’s forces and was backed by the Arab League and the Western forces alike. Consequently, Libya was air bombed, which helped remove Qaddafi from power, and was cited as an emergency action to prevent a mass killing of civilian protestors. However, the result of the ousting was the coming to power of a government, that was largely unable to provide security, and some members of which had links to Al Qaeda. A failed state creates another burned on the international community, despite the good reason of saving lives that led to the intervention.

Syria example is still more complicated than the previous two. Bashar Assad has indeed used a very heavy hand against the rebels. The current uprisings initially started out as peaceful localized protests, but quickly spread throughout the country, engaging a variety of groups, including Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and various Al Qaeda associates, and turning increasingly violent. As a result of the lethal violence, much of the civilian population has been caught between Assad and his army and Al Qaeda-backed rebels. Both sides have been cited for their gross human rights violations. Chemical weapon attacked have occurred, widely attributed to Assad, though some argue that the rebels have used chemical weapons in the past.

The international community has expressed extensive concern for the use of WMDs, as well as the mass casualties in the civilian population. However, attempts to stabilize the situation through economic sanctions, have been largely stymied at the UN by Russia and China. The United States has proclaimed the use of WMDs as a red line in the conflict, but the method of intervention – a series of short air strikes, which might not accomplish much, or a longer involvement that might stretch US financial and human sources beyond its capabilities, has not been decided upon, and after a controversial stormy discussion in the Congress, has been discarded. Other allies have backed out of intervention, and other regional actors chose not to get military involved. Syria represents a strategic interest for many, many actors both in the area and outside of it, and this looks like the instance where involvement could bring in so many complications and so little relief that it might not be worth it.
Despite the general sympathy for the suffering population, there are several issues to consider. The first and the foremost is that there is no viable leadership to take over should Assad be removed. Currently, the majority of the rebels consists of Al Qaeda associates. The rest are disparate, voiceless, and corrupt. Some would compare Syria to both Libya and former Yugoslavia, wherethe dictators reigned – Qaddafi and Milosevic, respectively, but also terrorist-linked groups (some of which did come to power in Libya, and in the case of former Yugoslavia, attacked Serbian civilians in retaliation for atrocities committed by Milosevic). Due to the lack of political alternatives, Syria seems to be heading in the direction of eventual dismemberment or at the very least, a failed state scenario not dissimilar to Somalia and Sudan. Due to its strategic location, and interest of such rogue actors as the Iranian-backed Hezbullah, Iran itself, and numerous others, it has a much greater potential for regional and international destabilization than Yugoslavia and even Syria.

Military intervention seems to be a hopeless, rather than a just cause, in Syria’s case. Not only is it notlikely to save the civilians who have not yet fled the country or have been internally displaced, but it has the potential to bring Al Qaeda associates to power, or else to draw in a harangue of various actors into a proxy war, which will make Vietnam seem like a skirmish, due to the globalization of threats in the region, as well as nuclear ambitions and capacities of some of the interested parties. Looking at this rather messy example, one has to argue that any intervention or war, however just or humanitarian at the heart of it, should not be undertaken without clear objectives, means to attain them, and a sound, realistic exit strategy.

Yugoslavia and Libya required nothing more than air bombings on the part of the countries, who participated in the interventions. Objectives for Syria have not been articulated, as no one has envisioned the next step after removal of Assad and his cohorts. Nevertheless, not to end on a pessimistic note, that does not mean that a military intervention or a just war are the only ways to help civilian populations trapped between a rock and a hard place of dictators and violent groups. Perhaps similar steps could have been taken in Yugoslavia and as well, although in both instances political interests or lack of good planning prevented the international community from taking decisive non-action until events spiraled out of control.

A combination of tough economic sanctions for the dictator (which Russia in particular has been opposing from the outstart), political incentives, clandestine backing, grooming, and most importantly investing into of PROMISING non-corrupt non-Al-Qaeda groups, humanitarian and other material support for constructive grassroots movements among the population, and committed peacekeeping forces with the ability to stand up to both the army and at the rebels would be the ideal scenario. But even some of these factors could be more fruitful than a hopeless military intervention at this point.

Furthermore, infiltrating the rebel forces and slowly destroying them from within could solve the problem without further implicating the non-combatants. While understandably, the course focused on just war and intervention as necessary international steps to helping helpless civilian populations, it drew a false dichotomy of inaction and strong military k involvement as the only possible reactions to a crisis as observed in Yugoslavia, Libya, and Syria. There is a potential for many intelligent, creative, political and combined solutions that could save many lives, much property, and prevent the disaster of collapsed states and embittered, alienated populations.
In cases that are messy, where there are no clear winners, and there is a lot of wrong committed by all sides, ideas of proportionality and distinction seem to be, if not completely inapplicable, then at least bound to be reevaluated and restructured to fit in with the new, increasingly complicateds\, global realities. Hopefully, in the future, I will be posting more on these principles and the necessity for rethinking international law in terms of the new global threats. To make it clear, I believe that while humanitarian causes are very important, all three crises described above involved a number of various geopolitical considerations that were no less important to contemplate. However, such considerations lie beyond the scope of this reflection on the principles of just war theories.