Friday, September 06, 2013

Why we don't have a good argument to 'punish' Syria now -sadly

My piece from the Kingston Whig-Standard.

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


  1. I think it's kind of arbitrary that chemical weapons are banned, but apparently the mere fact that we can semi-successfully ban a kind of weapon has good consequences:

    “I was at a lot of those diplomatic conferences,” Price said. “I was really struck by how many times diplomats from various countries made the argument that we’ve already banned one weapon and so we can do this. That precedent made it seem a lot more possible. I’m really convinced that if there wasn’t a quite successful track record on restraining chemical weapons, many more countries around the world would think it preposterous that you could ban a weapon that’s used as widely as land mines.”

    Destroying some military installations, aircraft, or tanks to punish Assad for using chemical weapons would enforce the norm.

    By the way, do you think there are things we can do to fix the situation in North Korea? My impression is that we don't act there because the possible negative consequences (nuclear retaliation, an attack on South Korea, at best a gigantic refugee crisis) are so large.

  2. Neil, I think actually that like in North Korea that there is noting much we can do at this point in time. There are very serious risks attached to following Obama's course of action (just look at the sorry historical record of US intervention in the region), both to Syrian civilians as well as the wider region (Russia promised today that it would militarily defend Syria against outside attacks). Short of going in there with large numbers of ground troups aiming to separate the combatants from each other, sending a few cruise missiles from a warship and bombing from high up in the air seems pretty foolish to me. That chemical weapons ban victory seems somewhat of a doubtful win, seeing that today we have non-chemical weapons that are as successful at maiming and killing large number of people.

  3. It is yet to be proved that two wrongs can make a right. A threat by the Bashar al-Assad was converted into an invitation to treat by President. Barak Obama when he declared many months ago that his “redline” in the Syrian Civil War would be the use of chemical weapons. The acceptance of such offer and performance by Bashar al-Assad was foolish, wicked and barbaric. Combining the 1,500 people, including children killed by the chemical weapons and over 100,000 lives already consumed by the Syrian Civil War, it is clear that the US and France waited for too long to intervene if they have wanted to do so in a more civilized manner without increasing the number of casualties and inflicting more sufferings on Syrian civilian population. Of cause, destroying some military installations, aircraft, or tanks to punish Assad for using chemical weapons would discourage other leaders from attempting to use chemical weapons on their own people. But the same civilian populations are at a higher risk if military action is angrily embarked upon.

    Russia’s threat to use the military capability of its warships, present off the Syrian coast, to rebut any attempt to attack from outside Syria is another cause for concern. Basher al-Assad is already on a suicide mission. The Russians who mislead him are still playing the ostrich. We should be concerned with how many chemical weapons are in Basher al-Assad’s arsenal now and how to prevent further use, apprehend and prosecute him for offence against humanity. This option will enforce the norm and prevent the temptation of chemical weapons’ use around the world.

    The use of chemical weapons against civilian and non-civilian Syrians by Bashar al-Assad is condemnable. On the other hand, supporting the U.S. President, Barack Obama and his French counterpart, President Francois Hollande, to punish the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad by military attacks without considering the possible negative consequences of nuclear retaliation, an attack on South Korea, and a gigantic refugee crisis is really an intervention without human face. Two wrongs cannot make a right!

  4. Your solution appears to be a mix of deontological and Utilitarian theory - viz. partly based on 'known principles of “just war”- i.e bright line rules, as opposed to discretion- but subject to a wider Utilitarian constraint- '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.'
    However, currently we are seeing that bright line rules don't work in diplomacy. 'Don't give aid to a military junta' seems like a good rule. But it breaks down in Cairo.
    Creating a no-fly zone for countries like Syria seems a no brainer- but what if the Alawi minority ends up being ethnically cleansed? In any case, if the new Syria is al Qaida dominated, what on earth were we doing in Afghanistan and Iraq?
    In the past, countries have had 'bright line' rules for going to war based on International treaties. But it was on a basis of recognized 'interests' which were justiciable and of a bilateral nature. In those cases, sticking to bright-line rules was optimal even if the Utilitarian calculus suggested something different because Reputation was of the essence in that type of Game.
    The problem with Humanitarian intervention is that justiciability is fuzzy because it is not aligned with objective 'interests'. At any moment, if picks out a different set of people who are deserving protection but this set is not an actual coalition.
    In the ancient Indian text, the Mahabharata, the dilemma of the warrior who wants to help the weaker side is explored- indeed, the difficulty of using war to end war was a major theme for the early 'Ahimsa' (non-violence) based religions.
    If deontology faces a backward induction type problem, Utilitarian calculus too soon breaks down because of the problem of counterfactuals.
    Is there a way forward? I suppose one thing we are all beginning to understand is that economic problems- e.g. food shortfall caused by drought- have to be tackled immediately. It is best to work with Sovereign Govts rather than indulge in romantic fantasies about courageous insurgents overthrowing the despots and establishing an Utopia. The ICC must show respect for the principle of complementarity- Universal jurisdiction can't arise in a manner adverse to National Sovereignty. Lastly, we need to insulate ourselves from whatever it is that drives the news cycle otherwise our moral preferences become manipulable in a disasterous way. We end up aiding and abetting those who want to destroy our way of life.