U.S. President Barack Obama and his French counterpart, President Francois Hollande, have decided that it is time to “punish” the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilian and non-civilian Syrians alike. Mr. Obama declared many months ago that his “red line” in this civil war would be the use of chemical weapons.
Since then, chemical weapons have been used on a smaller scale on a number of occasions. Mr. Obama’s bluff was called, he blinked, the red line was crossed, and nothing happened, until a few weeks ago. Then chemical weapons were seemingly used on a larger scale, and around 1,500 people, including children, reportedly died.
Put in context, the civil war in Syria has cost already in excess of 100,000 lives, millions of people have been displaced, the country’s economy is in tatters, thousands and thousands of buildings and other infrastructure, including hospitals, have been destroyed. None of these were seemingly sensible red lines, so it does appear to be the case that if 100,000 people get killed in a civil war by means other than chemical weapons, that is quite all right as far as Mr. Obama and other world leaders are concerned. Fifteen hundred people murdered by chemical weapons - to them, that is another issue altogether.
To be fair, the world community has decided that the use of chemical weapons is a more serious issue than the use of other means to kill people in times of war. A UN convention signed by 165 countries prohibits the use of chemical weapons. Incidentally, Syria and North Korea are among the pariah states that have chosen not to sign this document.
Surely the use of chemical weapons against civilians is nothing that ought to be celebrated. It is unjust to use weapons of mass destruction indiscriminately against defenceless civilian populations. While it may seem obvious, let us pause for a moment and ask: Why is it unfair?
Well, civilians are by definition not parties to military conflict. For that reason it is irrelevant whether one agrees that the rebel army in Syria pursues a just cause or whether one supports the Syrian government. Neither would be justified in attacking civilians because they simply have nothing to do with the conflict in question. They must not be victimized by weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction are not morally different from other weapons that kill and maim innocent bystanders. They do matter practically more simply because of their capacity to kill and maim more civilians.
This shows why the chemical weapons “red line” President Obama drew in the sand is unjustifiable. If any red line should have been drawn it should have been the “weapons-of-mass-destruction-used-against-civilians” red line. This, in turn, would have been a red line that should have triggered international intervention a long time ago. Just think of the Syrian air force’s bombing of Syrian cities and towns. Why should the Syrian civilians killed during those air raids count somehow morally less than those killed by chemical weapons?
The objective of the bombings Mr. Obama proposes is to keep the civil war in Syria going while discouraging Mr. al-Assad at the same time from using chemical weapons again. The main reason for this stance is probably that the U.S. government has – quite rightly – come to conclude that a takeover of Syria by rebel forces would likely result in a tak-over by not exactly democratically minded Islamic fundamentalists. Replacing a more or less secular dictator with a religious dictatorship does not appear to be on the agenda of the United States and their allies.
This means that the United States is not actually concerned about stopping the murder of Syrian civilians by non-chemical weapons of mass destruction. However, it is doubtful that if you bleed to death as a result of an air raid instead of suffocating as a result of the use of chemical weapons you are somehow better off, or you are somehow less worthy of international support. Yet that is what the current argument on limited military intervention suggests.
If this sounds implausible to you, and you wonder whether I did reconstruct the argument in support of military intervention correctly, let me give you another example that shows that it really is not actually about civilian lives lost, but about an arbitrarily chosen kind of weapon used in the process.
Think about North Korea. Over the last few decades, reportedly several hundred thousand North Koreans have starved to death as a result of the failed economic policies of the dictatorship in that country. In fact, more people have died there than in the current war in Syria. Has the international community done anything at all about this crime against humanity? Have their been threats of impending military action against the North Korean military targets? Not to my knowledge.
Surely the lives of North Koreans that have been lost in this man-made disaster do not count for less than the lives of those who have lost their lives in Syria. If numbers are anything to go by, the international community would have a stronger case for military intervention in North Korea than it has in Syria today.
Surely there can be a moral case for military intervention in the internal affairs of countries, the governments of which slaughter large parts of their own populations. Just think of the Holocaust in Germany. A concerted military effort by the international community could almost certainly have preserved many of the lives that were lost in German concentration camps at the time. It is not that Western governments did not know what was going on; they chose for far too long to stay clear of conflict.
It seems to me that known principles of “just war” should be applied to the situation in Syria - that a case for intervention might be made simply because of the large-scale murder of innocent civilians by the regime. However, that alone is insufficient to justify an intervention. If it was the case, for instance, that an intervention would result in even more civilian lives lost, we would have good reasons not to proceed.
Basically what we should be aiming at would be an intervention that with a high likelihood would degrade the regime’s ability to murder innocent civilians on a large scale while keeping the number of civilian lives lost in that operation to the possible minimum. Our action would be successful if it resulted in more civilian lives preserved than non-action would have preserved.
The uncertainties with regard to this overarching objective suggest that the case for military intervention has not been made.
Udo Schuklenk teaches bioethics at Queen’s University. He tweets @Schuklenk