Would a US Invasion of Syria Be a Just War? Or Sinful and Wicked?
President Trump is considering military action against the nation of Syria. Would that be justified? Would the servicemen who took part in it be acting as the legitimate sword of the state, as St. Paul wrote? Or would they be doing something deeply unjust, acting as St. Augustine described the Roman empire in its aggressions, like a “band of pirates”? Few questions are of greater moral importance than our choice to send our brave military into harm’s way, to take lives and devastate the enemy.
Let’s step back for a moment and think about the stakes.
I’m a big fan of “police procedural” TV shows. Examples include Law and Order, Criminal Minds, and CSI. One of the most poignant moments in such programs? When a cop has to shoot a suspect, and that person dies. Because they are heroes, they take no glee in ending a human life. Since they are trained to enforce the law in a free society, they worry right away: Was it justified? Will I be prosecuted, lose my badge, my pension, or even my freedom?
You’d never see such scenes in a show set in Communist China, Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia. Only in countries where the Christian view of the person prevails would those in authority have to fear that their colleagues might arrest them for killing a citizen. Instead of just brushing it under the rug. So such scenes for me are beautiful reminders of the freedoms that we enjoy. We shouldn’t need to fear the police, since they’re taught to fear the law.
The Law that Should Govern Wars
Likewise our politicians, and the citizens who direct them, ought to be governed by moral law. Most of all when we take the grave, solemn, and irrevocable decision to go to war. Christians need not, indeed ought not, be pacifists. Pacifism kills. It is gravely unnatural, repugnant to all the God-given instincts which we were born with. Neither can we be militarists. The two stand as equal and opposite heresies, each birthed in the heart of Hell.
The very militias trying to fight Assad for power are known for blowing up churches and crucifying Christians.
When we consider attacking another country, we ought to subject our choice to the same kind of scrutiny that a cop employs when using deadly force. We don’t have police procedure, or formal laws. Instead we have the Law that God wrote on the human heart in ink of fire. You’ll find it in the tradition that has guided all Christians since we climbed out of the catacombs in the Roman Empire. The Just War code is the fruit of natural reason. Every human being, with or without the gift of faith, should hew to it. That said, our passions are strong enough that few pagan nations take much note of it. Sadly, too few Christian rulers have either.
Let’s try to do better this time. We’re not slaves of Pharaoh or Caesar. As sovereign citizens, you and I share part of the praise or blame when our nation makes such decisions. It’s our solemn duty to consider the evidence and weigh the justice of making war. So let’s use the classic Christian tool of Just War criteria to answer the following crucial question:
Should the U.S. launch military strikes against the Assad regime in Syria? Should we aim to remove its regime?
The Criteria of a Just War
I suggest we answer this question by going through the criteria used over centuries by Christians of most denominations to sift through such decisions. Each one appears below, in the form used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, with my best effort to apply it to today’s lethal decision.
The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.
Are we certain that the secular Assad regime just used chemical weapons in its war against jihadi Islamist militias? No. Not at all. First of all, it’s just plain weird that when Assad was on the verge of winning the war and President Trump had announced U.S. withdrawal, suddenly he did the one thing guaranteed to provoke a U.S. attack. Or did he? An MIT chemical weapons expert judged last year’s much-touted attack as “staged.” The only evidence we have so far for this attack comes from a radical Islamist militia that itself seems to have used chemical weapons in the past against the Kurds. So they’d know how to stage it, to provoke a U.S. intervention.
All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
Chemical weapons attacks in Syria have not been ongoing, but a rare (though appalling) atrocity. It seems likely that if Assad completed his imminent conquest of the radical Islamist militias attacking his government’s sovereign territory, that these attacks by either side would end.
There must be serious prospects of success.
Let’s say American forces help the Islamists conquer Syria and its 1 million Christians, plus hundreds of thousands of Alawites and Shia. Are we sure they wouldn’t use chemical weapons (again) to repress resistance from religious minorities they are trying to ethnically cleanse? Remember how our conquest of Iraq led to hundreds of thousands of additional civilian deaths from guerilla war waged by the losing side.
How would we define success? For most war advocates, replacing Assad’s regime with anything at all would count as a success, as long as it wasn’t allied with Russia and Iran. But that’s not a just criterion. Such cynicism led America once to ally with Saddam Hussein against Iran, and let him acquire chemical weapons. We must define success as a government that doesn’t actively persecute religious minorities, or start wars against its neighbors. There’s no reason to think that a radical Islamist regime would meet these criteria.
We have no way to be sure who is using chemical weapons. Perhaps both sides. Let’s say American forces help the Islamists conquer Syria and its 1 million Christians, plus hundreds of thousands of Alawites and Shia. Are we sure they wouldn’t use chemical weapons (again) to repress resistance from religious minorities they are trying to ethnically cleanse? Remember how our conquest of Iraq led to hundreds of thousands of additional civilian deaths from guerilla war waged by the losing side. The very militias trying to fight Assad for power are known for blowing up churches and crucifying Christians.
The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
The forces whom the U.S. would install in power after a regime change in Syria are intolerant Sunni radicals. They’re allied with al Qaeda, which bombed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Their ideology is indistinguishable from that of ISIS. What possible reason would we have to expect that the millions of non-Sunnis, and moderate Sunnis, who would fall under their control, would be safe from persecution?
So no, it appears that a U.S. war to remove Assad from power would not be just. It would not deserve to succeed. We should pray that it doesn’t happen.
This article has been updated.