Syria through the lens of Church’s just war tradition

In early September, much of the world held its breath as President Barack Obama pushed for U.S. congressional approval of military action against the Syrian government over its alleged use of chemical weapons during its 2-year-old civil war with rebel forces. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged violation of the international norm against biological and chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on civilians is an egregious war crime for which the regime needs to be held accountable, say Catholic intellectuals, theologians and scholars of the Church’s just war tradition. However, they add, President Obama’s intent to use military force in retribution failed to align with several just war criteria.

A Russia-U.S. brokered resolution that Syria surrender its chemical weapons stockpile to international control defused the threatened action. However, such a unilateral military strike raises questions as to what authority the United States has to intervene in a civil war and to attack a country that poses no direct threat to it or its allies. The limited bombing campaign threatened by Obama would also be unlikely to destroy all of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile, and it could exacerbate the violence in the war-torn Middle Eastern country that has already killed more than 100,000 people and displaced more than 4 million.

“There should be lessons learned from when we went into Iraq. President Obama said this isn’t an intervention like Iraq, but we need to look at the probable consequences from a strike,” said Tobias Winright, associate professor of theological studies at St. Louis University in Missouri and co-author of “After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice” (Orbis, $20).

Exploring all alternatives

Winright told Our Sunday Visitor that he does not see how military intervention in Syria can be morally justified after taking into account several just war criteria. For example, under just war thinking, military action should only be used as a last resort.

“I think we’re now seeing that if we had begun bombing two weeks ago [in early September], we would not have met that criteria of last resort,” he said. “The diplomacy going on now shows there were some alternatives. Whether or not that works, though, remains to be seen.”

On Sept. 23, Assad said his government would allow international experts to access his country’s chemical weapons sites in accordance with the resolution, which was reached in Geneva in mid-September. While it is uncertain as to whether diplomacy will succeed, the fact that Obama said the United States was ready to attack before diplomatic options had been explored is one area in which his strategy failed the just war test. “If there are alternatives, war becomes a crime,” said Jesuit Father Raymond G. Helmick, a theology professor at Boston College.

“Are there other alternatives besides use of armed force to pursue a legitimate objective like destroying chemical weapons? It seems like the United States has gone from indifference to planning a bombing campaign. Isn’t there something in between?” said Robert G. Kennedy, professor and chairman of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.


Kennedy told OSV he does not believe the United States is the legitimate authority that can take military action, according to just war theory. The closest body to a legitimate authority in this situation, Kennedy said, would be the United Nations.

He compared the United States circumventing the United Nations and forming ad-hoc coalitions to launch unilateral strikes to vigilantes attacking criminal defendants acquitted at trial. “Despite the fact that something went wrong, we don’t have the standing to do that.” Winright agreed.

“The question is not so much whether we’re the world’s policeman. In this case, it’s more like we’re the world’s vigilante,” he said. “Who made the United States the authority to intervene?”

One scenario where the United States could be morally justified to strike without U.N. authorization would be to protect innocent civilians from a chemical weapons attack proven to be imminent. The Responsibility to Protect — an international security and human rights norm the United Nations adopted in 2005 — addresses the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides and war crimes. However, in the present crisis, Obama said the U.S. military could attack Syria at any time, for punitive rather than defensive reasons to protect life.

Michael Peppard, assistant theology professor at Fordham University, said he does not believe a punitive attack is compatible with the just war tradition. Though Responsibility to Protect is an emerging concept in just cause criteria, he said the other criteria must also be satisfied to warrant military action. “The U.N. was created for this reason,” he said. “If we expect just cause to include humanitarian intervention, then the U.N. has to be the authority. It’s the one body that is public and has some form of public discussion before action is taken.”

Potential consequences

The just war model says success should be probable and the means to wage the war proportionate. A serious problem with attacking Syria, observers said, is the unknown effect of what a limited bombing campaign would have on the populace. “It hasn’t been made clear by what metric we would use to define success,” Peppard said. “A limited strike wouldn’t topple the regime, install a more just government or secure the chemical weapons.”

“A strike could widen the war, draw in other fighters, possibly widening the conflict into a regional war while widening the conflict on the ground itself,” said Stephen M. Colecchi, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Colecchi told OSV that Pope Francis and the bishops believe a U.S.-led attack on Syria would have “grave unintended consequences.” Colecchi said a strike could embolden rebel forces to step up attacks, leading the Assad regime in turn to increase its use of chemical weapons to remain in power.

David O’Brien, a professor emeritus of Catholic history and Catholic social and political thought at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., told OSV that Church teachings in recent decades have expressed more support for nonviolent means of solving conflicts, and a more rigorous application of just war principles to specific situations. He echoes the Holy See’s and other scholars’ skepticism over unilateral action and the probability of a military strike’s success to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capability.

“A surgical strike wouldn’t probably have much of an impact,” he said. “It’s unlikely to do anything to the (chemical weapons) stockpile and it would have significant collateral damage. And the political question here is that you can’t do it without intervening on behalf of one side in the civil war.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.