Let’s take out Syria


If the state gassing a civilian population is not justification for a war, then what is?

By now many of you will have heard about this story: Syrian government forces have killed up to 1,300 civilians in a gas attack. You may also have heard scepticism about whether or not the reports are true. I do not know whether or not they are true. But the possibility that they are true raises (in my mind, at least), the question of how bad is too bad before other people are required to intervene and do something.

The title of this blog post in intentionally provocative and reaching. But the point demands our attention (or at least, I request yours).

I am not a pacifist. Contrary to the claims of some Christians – some of which I have explained in the past and more of which I will discuss in future posts – Christianity is not a pacifist religion. The Bible is not a call to pacifism, and historically Christians have not thought so. If you think otherwise, then I maintain that you are wrong, but this is not the place to discuss that. I am also, as a rule, opposed to war. The circumstances under which war is justified are very few. However, if the use of chemical weapons on the part of the state, killing large numbers of civilians – non-combatants including children – is not grounds for those with the ability to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable, then there is probably no scenario that could justify war at all.

War is rightly waged to protect the vulnerable from oppressors who would kill them. It is not rightly waged on the basis of possibilities of what people may or may not be capable of (one of the major concerns voiced at the time of the Iraq invasion). The world is a much smaller place than it used to be. For better or worse, we are all neighbours on the world scene in a way that would once have been unthinkable. If a family was murdering its children right now and we all knew about it, then those of us with the power to do something about it would have a moral duty to do something about it right now. That is one of the most clear-cut justifications for getting involved in other people’s affairs. This is what would make this war (if there were such a war) justified: Stepping in right now to protect defenceless people from immediate harm or death.

If this story is true, and if the Syrian state is wiping out chunks of its civilian population with chemical weapons, then there is not only an opportunity, but a moral imperative for her neighbours with the ability to do so to step in, attack and dismantle the Syrian state. To stand back and allow this to continue when we have the ability to do something about it is akin to sitting by and watching a child be tortured to death on the grounds that it is none of our business.  I expressed this view today in public. Some shared this view. Others did not. It is actually a view that I take to be obviously correct (there are plenty of views that I think are correct, but not obviously so). A number of objections were suggested, which I comment on briefly as follows.

I share the often-voiced concern that nations should not, as a rule, meddle in the affairs of other nations. This is the concern that is behind the derisive phrase “world police.” The job of protecting the citizens of other states against aggression falls to the representatives of that society, the government. The problem, however, is that this is a situation where the government is accused of carrying out these killings against their own people. If these claims are true then this is a failed state, resulting in large numbers of non-combatant people who are left vulnerable in the face of mass slaughter. This is not a matter of being the “world police,” it is simply a matter of being our brother’s keep, of loving those who are defenceless.  Two biblical questions come to mind, one from Cain, one from Jesus: Cain, seeking to avoid moral responsibility, asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jesus, asking a question about his story of the good Samaritan in order to show what real love looks like in Luke 10:36-37

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

I also have (some) sympathy with those who would say “America shouldn’t be doing this, we’re always intervening in the Middle East and it was a big mess in Iraq.” The sympathy I have over this concern is that I have not said and would not say that we should assume that this is America’s job. I found it telling that when I briefly offered these thoughts in social media, a number of people responded by raising concerns about whether or not America should be doing this. I said nothing about America. I agree that in fact if any nation was to intervene to take out the Syrian state, America would likely play a larger role than anybody else. But the view that I have expressed here is not a view about what I think is most likely to happen. Maybe nothing at all will happen. Maybe these reports are not true. I don’t know any of this right now. What I am talking about is what should happen if these reports are true. And what should happen is not that America should assume the role of protecting people around the world from tyrannical leaders. I think that this is the job of the whole world.

I have no sympathy with the response that says “why then are you not advocating intervention in X?” where X is some other scenario in the world. The suggestion here is that if some other scenario is really bad too (e.g. camps in North Korea) then we shouldn’t address the situation in Syria. This does not follow. Even if both scenarios are exactly as bad as each other, and even if all the costs and benefits of getting involved are the same in each case, we would still be doing the right thing by intervening in Syria. Secondly, it is very unlikely indeed that the consequences of getting involved would be the same in every scenario. Take North Korea for example, which is a nuclear power involved in complex political relationships (especially with China). It is obvious that intervening in North Korea in an effort to dismantle the state would have major world consequences that doing the same in Syria would not.

I also have no sympathy that says “but the rebels in Syria are really bad too, so we shouldn’t just want to dismantle the state.” This is not a reason to refrain from intervention in order to dismantle the Syrian state. No doubt the rebels are every bit as bad as the objector believes. But it is not the job of rebel groups to protect or govern a nation. It is the job of the government, and if these reports are true, it is the government who is failing in this duty and instead killing its civilian population. The task of intervening in the way I tentatively favour will include looking at how best to address the problem of rebel groups, but their badness is not a reason to do nothing about the actions of the Syrian state. It is plainly untrue to suggest that by intervening to dismantle the Syrian state, we are somehow favouring or helping the rebels. In the world we want to build, the rebels (unfortunately) exist within the nation governed by the state, not the other way around. The world should not allow the presence and activities of rebel groups to hold justice to ransom any more than the world should allow the Syrian state to dispose of its civilian population.

So who exactly should do this? That is a good question. The purpose of the UN’s existence, in part, was to have a united front against tyranny. UN forces – especially forces drawn from those who live in the most affected parts of the world – therefore strike me as the obvious choice. That the UN is generally unwilling to engage in activities like invading the nations of tyrants and seeking to dismantle their state is part of the problem. If we’re going to band together to make the world a safer place, we need to realise that sometimes you have to fight for it.

This may all be moot. The reports may not be true (again, I do not know if they are, so much of this is hypothetical). But if they are true, a war waged to dismantle the Syrian state is justified. Exactly how this would be done and what should follow such a dismantling is a more difficult question, one that I have not answered at all.

Now, I realise that my readership is likely to be divided on this. So have at thee.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Sven August 22, 2013, 10:38 pm

    Your US readers may appreciate this PBS documentary (region-restricted) to see how the civil war in Syria spells out, if you’re on either side of the conflict: http://video.pbs.org/video/2364993210/

  • Roy August 22, 2013, 11:11 pm

    Glenn – thanks for bringing this to my attention. I get what your saying an agree but these decisions seem way, way above me. What can we do as common citizens on to influence these decisions?

  • Julie August 23, 2013, 2:23 am

    Not much to say other than I agree, but the problem is too many people are like Cain. Too many people don’t want to get involved. Whether on an individual scale or a worldwide scale. I know from an individual perspective, like on the issue of domestic violence, so many people just don’t want to know. Unless they are the ones being victimised, the answer is always “I don’t want to get involved, I don’t even want to hear about it”. Sadly many christians take that attitude. And a lot of it comes down to misinterpretation of the bible. Whether wars in other countries or having a friend or family involved in domestic violence (victim or perpetrator) or anything on a scale anywhere in between, the attitude is always that somehow we shouldn’t be our brother’s keeper, wrongly backed up by misusing the verses on not judges others and the verses about submitting to authority (whether that be governments, bosses, husbands, parents, etc), while at the same time misusing verses about “turning the other cheek” to tell victims they should just ignore it, pray harder, forgive and not seek help and that somehow they are doing the “wrong” thing by seeking to involve others to rescue them.

    Too many christians ignore all the verses about defending the vulnerable in this world and it’s something I’d like to see changed.

    As for Syria? I think we need further proof of exactly what happened, but if it turns out they have used chemical weapons on civilians, including children and babies, then people have a duty to act and step in.

  • Piers August 23, 2013, 2:53 am

    This brings to mind a couple of questions for me…
    1. Does dismantling the state necessarily mean a military intervention – are there other methods of achieving this end?
    2. A genuine question (from ignorance) that probably needs some further unpacking – at the time of Christ and just after – did the Roman state commit atrocities that morally demanded the dismantling of the state? If so, what was the response from the Christian writers and from the Christian community?

    My initial thinking on 2 is that the Romans probably did do some pretty nasty things. I understand Nero had a pretty bad reputation. However, the Christian response was not to destabilise the state through military intervention, but through promoting Christ.

    Perhaps the difference here, borrowing from your analogy Glenn, is that the Christians weren’t ever in a position to defend the child being tortured to death. If they tried to destabalise the state through the use of arms, the only thing that would have been achieved is another victim. So they used different means. The difference with the Syrian situation is that we do have the ability to stop the child being tortured and killed. Given this power, we should do all that we can.

    My question then becomes, what is the point of saving the child, only to have the child rise up and torture and kill the adult? In other words, dismantling the current government in Syria is either going to create a power vacuum or put another despotic government in power. Unless a viable alternative can be put into place, just dismantling the government is not going to solve the problem of injustice – and indeed can make things worse.

    Ultimately, change in Syria needs to be brought about by the people themselves – they need an internal revolution, not of power but of their worldview. We may change their behaviour through external threats -we may even stop the present day injustice – but as soon as that threat is removed someone will end up torturing and killing the weak. Neither peace or justice will be served just by dismantling the present day state – I fear all it would do is change who is killing who.

    I do not oppose military intervention. I just believe that it needs to be thought through to the very end – and it needs to be shown that it will be effective in bringing about true change. I do oppose sanctions. It hurts the people (I guess the theory is to make them hurt so much that they revolt), and it becomes something the state can use against us, “Look at them – look what they have done to you. They aren’t letting in food, medicines and supplies – these are the people we are trying to protect you from – these are the people we are trying to resist.”

    Now for my crazy (and probably stupid) idea – just throwing it out there. Now for something completely different… Instead of dropping bombs, why not drop leaflets. Let people know what their state is doing. Tell them that we are ready to help. Fly “Google airships” over the country giving the citizens free (free from the state) internet. Where needed, give food and medicines to the people. That is, win a war of propaganda in order to change the hearts and minds of the people – and thereby bring about genuine long lasting change.

    Waffle now over 🙂


  • Dave August 23, 2013, 5:12 am

    I’d click “like” if the button was there.

  • Joel August 23, 2013, 7:32 pm

    I’m not quite sure how you can favor intervention on behalf of the rebels if, by your own admission, they are far from benign. If opposing Assad means backing Jihadists, some of whom are linked to Al-Qaeda, wouldn’t the best option be to stay out of this war? It seems to me that the old conservative principle of “better the devil we know than the devil we don’t” is appropriate here. The fact that Saudi Arabia has been itching to overthrow the Syrian government says it all. The rebels represent this same intolerant Wahhabism that makes Saudi Arabia the cruel dictatorship it is. I think the decision of the U.S and Europe to arm the insurgents was foolish and will only perpetuate the conflict. How many times must we be duped into believing that a “humanitarian intervention” on behalf of some Arab regime will lead to a tolerant democracy before we realize how detached from reality this truly is. The last time the U.S and Nato picked the side of revolutionaries in a civil war it didn’t end well. I don’t know where you stood on the Libyan war, but that represents the failure of this interventionist policy. The overthrow of the state led to the rise of gangs now dominating the streets, torturing and killing rival tribesmen, and bolstered Islamic groups that went on to spawn a coup in Mali. It seems to me that this anarchy that results from the overthrow of government is often far worse than the tyranny of the state, and I cannot see how any conservative who believes in ordered liberty could be persuaded of such arguments.

  • Glenn August 23, 2013, 8:21 pm

    “intervention on behalf of the rebels”

    “backing Jihadists”

    “on behalf of some Arab regime”

    Joel, I’m left to assume that you’re objecting to what somebody else said, because none of this is suggested by anything I have said here. Are you sure you didn’t just notice the part where I said that if these claims are true then war is justified, and not read the rest?

  • Joel August 28, 2013, 6:55 am

    I guess I don’t fully understand the position you’re trying to lay out here, Glenn. I understood what you said about not wanting to leave the fate of Syria in the hands of its revolutionaries. I did not assume that you were actually in favor of all that the Syrian rebels are striving to achieve, and not all of my comments were directed specifically at you. However, I think you have to admit that carrying out their goal of deposing Assad would give them enormous ground. You cannot defeat Assad without advancing and emboldening his enemies. This is why I asked: why not just stay out? The costs of such a war would certainly be unbearable, both militarily and economically, and could even lead to a proxy war with China and Russia. Elsewhere you seem to suggest that the Iraq war was a mistake, but then you go on to make the same argument that the neoconservative leaders in the U.S and Britain used to justify that obscene folly, namely that the killing of civilians by a government justifies its being overthrown. Saddam also used chemical weapons on his own people; so does that mean the Iraq war was justified after all? If you believe that the U.S, or any other world power, is morally obligated to intervene to try and prevent such massacres perpetrated by despotic governments, then I cannot see how you can claim to be “opposed to war as a rule.” Far from severely restricting war, this would seem to create a state of permanent war, since presidents of powerful western countries could (and already do) intervene in so many places for reasons wholly apart from national defense. There is no provision in the United States Constitution requiring intervention in other countries wars for any humanitarian reasons, and I don’t see why there should be. The last thing the U.S needs is involvement in another war with murky consequences.

  • Andy August 28, 2013, 2:46 pm

    If our goal is to help as many foreigners as possible, is attacking a country the best way to do it?
    Military interventions are very expensive, and as terrible as the deaths of those Syrians were, there are many other people around the world who are dying as well. I’d be interested in hearing people’s thoughts on this article:

  • Ross August 30, 2013, 1:06 am

    I think that intervention in Syria is indeed justified, both morally (as per Glenn’s article) and practically. I’ll try and respond to some of your points Joel.

    The rightness or wrongness of an action is measured relative to what other options are available. In this case it should be noted that anarchy is already rampant in Syria. A failed intervention would only perpetuate a situation in Syria which would have continued in any case. And if the repressive Islamist regime that we are scared of got in power that would simply represent the replacement of one dictatorial repressive regime by another. Perhaps there are concerns that the fall of the Assad regime would mean chemical weapons would fall in to the hands of groups prepared to use them against civilians. But again (as now seems clear) this is already happening. In short intervention in Syria would likely not have negative consequences that either aren’t already present, or which would occur even without intervention. Can we be confident that intervention in Syria really would make the situation even worse than it currently is?

    For example it is not at all certain or probable that intervention in Syria really would lead to a nightmarish Islamist state. While Islamists are indeed present in the conflict its important not to overstate their importance. It is by no means true that all rebel groups want to destroy the west. The movement began as a peaceful general protest movement, not as an Islamic revolution. Events in Egypt also demonstrate that by no means do a majority of Arabs aspire to a sharia-law society. Clearly there will be significant variation among groups and individuals. Hence it is difficult to say with any confidence that intervention really would lead to the dominance of radical Islam. The situation on the ground is so complex, and the information available so scarce, that predictions of this sort cannot be rationally made.

    So let’s review the two options available to us. Either to intervene, or to not intervene. If we choose not to intervene that I think we can say one of two things will happen. It is technically possible that the regime will eventually assert its dominance over the whole of Syria (and thus we would continue to have a repressive illegitimate dictatorship in power). However this result seems unlikely. The forces required to maintain an iron grip on the country are simply not available to Assad. So the more probable result of non-intervention would simply be the continuation of the current anarchic civil war with all its bloodshed and misery. Not intervening offers no realistic chance of ending war, suffering or oppression in Syria.

    However what could happen if we did intervene? Here it is interesting. The rebel movement is home grown in Syria, meaning there is already a lot of support for the overthrow of Assad. The protest movement began peacefully in Syria by Syrian people. However the rebels, armed with light weapons, are impossibly outmatched by the army’s tanks, helicopters and all round superior equipment. An intervention could substantially reduce this imbalance in the conflict giving the rebels a much greater chance of victory. Hence we aren’t really talking about an Iraq or Afghanistan style intervention. Simply bombing the shit out of a few government forces could do the trick (especially since people are quick to jump ship when they see the ship sinking)

    And if the Assad regime did fall what then? Well I think it is indeed clear that instability and anarchy will continue for some time in Syria. However intervention in Syria does at least offer the possibility, however slight, that the situation will improve in the longer term; that the bloodshed will decrease, that eventually some more equitable form of government will arise. Perhaps this will never happen, perhaps it will. But if oppressive dictatorial regimes like Assad’s are not overthrown there is no such possibility.

  • Joel August 30, 2013, 7:48 am

    Need I remind you that the U.S has already intervened in this Syrian civil war by arming the insurgents? American politicians have already dipped their hands in blood by escalating this war. The U.S has been fomenting, arming and sustaining various rebel groups since the earlier stages of the ongoing conflict, the result of which has been some 100,000 dead Syrians. The irony of this whole situations is that the U.S which, at least in part, is responsible for those 100,000 dead Syrians, is now going to go to war because of a few hundred deaths allegedly caused the Assad regimes’ chemical weapons. I don’t believe Assad actually committed this act of slaughter. Why would he have done this knowing that America has already threatened to step in if “weapons of mass destruction” are used? But regardless of where the truth lies on that matter, the suggestion that we do the will of the Jihadists and take out Assad is utterly mad.

    Some of the rebels fighting Assad have come from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq. Jihadists are apparently coming from all over the region to fight Assad. Some of the Iraqi and Libyan insurgents now fighting Assad were formerly killing Americans in their native lands. How interesting it would be if American troops were fighting alongside their former enemies!

    As for the possibility that a more tolerable government would emerge if Assad were to fall, I would simply point out that history is against you. When was the last time the U.S had a successful military conflict? Certainly not in Iraq. We killed Saddam but this caused a civil war that killed some untold hundreds of thousands, and we totally failed to establish a Western friendly government in its place. Not in Afghanistan either. The Americans and the Brits will soon get booted out if they don’t come to their senses and quit first. The Libyan war was a success in so far as we accomplished our goal of defeating our former ally Muammar Gaddafi ,but our embassy in Benghazi was destroyed and our ambassador killed by the very same freedom fighters we were so eager to support. Not to mention the carnage and wreckage we left in its wake, and the ungovernable state that now exists and may soon became a failed state. Now you think we should do Syria next even though the circumstances are so similar to what happened in Libya?

  • Ross August 30, 2013, 2:57 pm

    I disagree. It really is a stretch to say that the US is responsible for the 100,000 deaths in Syria. They have only recently begun arming rebel groups (and by the way Iran and Russia had been arming the government for some time prior to the US arming the Syrians). The war has continued for more than two years without any intervention on their part. I would have thought it is obvious that it is the fighting between rebels and the government that is the main cause of fatalities in Syria (along with related causes such as lack of access to water, healthcare etc which result from the fighting), not the US. I do agree though that the chemical gas attacks do little to change the situation. If intervention in Syria isn’t justified after 100,000 deaths then a chemical gas attack won’t change that.

    Intervention should be limited to missile and air strikes on Syria, not troops on the ground. And I don’t think (at this stage anyway) that anyone is seriously proposing a full scale invasion and occupation of the country. This makes the Syrian situation not comparable to Iraq or Afghanistan. It is more comparable to Libya, or the NATO operation against Serbia in the 90’s (which I believe was a success). It is also easy to forget how the current situation in Syria actually arose. All the way back in 2011, riding the wave of the Arab Spring (now winter), peaceful protests began in Syria. For some time they continued to be peaceful but attacks from government forces inevitably escalated the conflict. The Syria uprising was an anti-Assad protest movement, not a jihadist revolution, and the responsibility for escalating these protests into outright rebellion (and therefore the war itself) rests surely with the government.

    Its too soon to say what will happen with Libya in the long term. (Though stories such as this do buttress your point http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Business/Middle-East/2013/Aug-30/229243-libyas-oil-exports-shrink-to-just-over-10-pct-capacity.ashx#axzz2dPrieLkx)

    I hold that intervention in Syria is justified (much for the same reasons as Glenn ). However if I can draw a slight distinction, I do not believe intervening in Syria is morally required. I don’t think nations really have a ‘moral imperative’ to intervene in such cases as Syria where so much is uncertain and the situation so complicated.

  • Glenn August 30, 2013, 10:10 pm

    Joel, three comments (one of which I have made already, another of which I have suggested):

    You cannot defeat Assad without advancing and emboldening his enemies.

    This is untrue in one sense, and unimportant in another. It is umimportant in any sense in which this just means that anti-state rebels will feel good if the world steps in to dismantle the current Syrian state in defence of the civilian population. We should not care about the feelings of the rebels.

    It is untrue in the sense that it will help the rebels to continue doing the bad things that they are doing. Assume that the rebels will still want to persecute Christians as well as do the nasty things that they are already doing, even under a different state. There’s no obvious reason to think otherwise. And again, how does what the rebels will do change the moral obligation to defend the defenceless against the state? As I said, the rebels will still be a problem under any new civilised state, because any civilised state will be just as intolerant of what the rebels are doing as Asad. That isn’t what will change. The rebels will continue to be a problem, and any reformed state would still have the rebel problem, and would still need a plan to address that problem.

    This is why I asked: why not just stay out? The costs of such a war would certainly be unbearable, both militarily and economically, and could even lead to a proxy war with China and Russia.

    Recall that I said that I am not talking about an American obligation, nor am I talking about what I think will in fact happen. I am talking about what ought to happen. As it turns out, I do not think that China has any less of an obligation to oppose states that do this sort of thing than any other nation does. China too ought to come tot he party on this and say “Yes, we do need to step in and defend these people by dismantling the Syrian state.”

    Elsewhere you seem to suggest that the Iraq war was a mistake, but then you go on to make the same argument that the neoconservative leaders in the U.S and Britain used to justify that obscene folly, namely that the killing of civilians by a government justifies its being overthrown. Saddam also used chemical weapons on his own people; so does that mean the Iraq war was justified after all?

    I do not know which comments of mine on Iraq you are thinking of. However, the Iraq war waged by G W Bush was not a response to Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds (if that is what you are responding to). That war was ostensibly waged on the suspicion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that outsiders did not know about, but why it was actually wages is a matter of much argument. The truth is that I am not sure why it was waged.

    However, waging war for the purposes of intervening right now to defend the defenceless who right now are in harm’s way because right now its failed state is killing them is eminently defensible.

  • Joel August 31, 2013, 4:38 am

    Ross, I think you slightly misread what I said in my last post. Notice I did not say “America is responsible for 100,000 deaths in the Syrian conflict.” I said that it was in part responsible, but in no small part mind you. I think you quite rightly point out that the conflict has its origins in the Arab Spring, just as the uprising in Libya did. The civil war began back in April of 2011 when Bashar al-Assad decided to send out the Syrian army to crush the rebellion. You are also entirely correct about Russia’s military aid as well. Both Russia and Iran had Assad’s back from the beginning. How is this relevant to my argument, though? I’m not here to represent those countries, but can you really expect Russia to give up its only ally in the region so easily? America, on the other hand, has no strategic interest at all in this war, and yet it insists on intervening.

    It is not a stretch at all to hold America accountable for those deaths in so far as the prolongation and escalation of this conflict was brought about by its intervening. When you have two world powers on opposite sides of the conflict then the war will of course be prolonged. I don’t see this ending anytime soon, and nor do I see it ending well for the U.S. The U.S has chosen the losing side, and unless it wants to step in to turn the tide, the odds are against the rebellion succeeding. I agree that a full on invasion is most unlikely and that air strikes will probably be the first move to be made against Assad. Yet I don’t think you can bank on the empty promises of slippery politicians in Washington or on Downing Street. Recall that Barak Obama said the same thing in regards to the Libyan war, and I don’t have to tell you that he was full of it when he made the promise not to put troops on the grounds. The same thing would likely happen in Syria. And I’m sorry, but if the U.S failed against lightly armed mountain tribesmen in Afghanistan, what makes you so confident it won’t fail in Syria? Besides, as I’ve already hinted at, this could break out into a regional war, and the consequences could be so disastrous that military intervention, on prudential grounds alone, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What if Russia decides to draw a line in the sand with Syria? It seems to me that picking a fight with another nuclear power is most imprudent.

    The U.S has been trying to overthrow Assad for a year now, not just recently. It is a way of the U.S sticking its finger in Iran’s eye, which the neocon faction in the Republican Party can’t resist doing whenever the opportunity arises. The support for intervention is coming from the neoconservatives and liberal war hawks in Washington, not the American people. The generals here are against it, and the polling data show that Americans largely oppose military intervention in Syria. It’s amusing you should bring up Egypt since the U.S was also behind that military coup, and at least a thousand people were recently massacred in the streets because of it. I’m sorry to be so harsh on American foreign policy, but it’s my patriotic duty to tell the truth.

  • Joel August 31, 2013, 4:45 am

    Glenn, I’m afraid that you just can’t get away with claiming that taking out Syria will not involve any further deleterious consequences. Jabhat al-Nursa, a Jihadist rebel group associated with Al-Qaeda, has been in this from the beginning, and Hezbollah, another terrorist group, has recently joined in the fighting. You will have to contend with those mad rebels, and they won’t be stopped easily. If we maintained the policy I’m suggesting then these rebels wouldn’t have a chance. They could not defeat Assad without our (America’s) aid. You also have the problem of choosing a successor. Just who do you propose should be Assad’s successor? I’m afraid there just isn’t any respectable Syrian alternative to Assad. There is no Syrian equivalent to Karzai who we could put in power, and putting together a sock-puppet government is a most formidable task. It failed in Afghanistan, it failed in Iraq, and it will almost certainly fail in Syria.
    You say “I was not talking about America’s obligation”. That’s fair enough, but you can’t change the fact that China would not go against its own interests in this war. What you believe China should do won’t change the fact that they have no interest in doing what you deem to be the right thing. You have to be practical, and given that the U.S, Britain, and France are the only countries who care about this war and want to defeat Assad, they will have to been the ones to carry it out.
    The Iraq war is not dissimilar to the Syrian situation with all this talk about weapons of mass destruction, a term that provokes unwarranted fear. Chemical weapons are nothing compared to say, nuclear missiles, and yet they get lumped in together in that category. My point about Saddam’s use of chemical weapons on the Kurds is that, if war with Syria is justified on the grounds that you give, I can’t really see why war with Iraq would not have been justified on the same grounds. You sort of dodged the question. This particular instance was, in fact, one of the reasons given to launch the war in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld and other neocons made this argument repeatedly. I lost track of how many times he said “Saddam used chemical weapons on his own people”, as if this justified this mad policy. Somehow I doubt you would be willing to argue that Iraq is better off without Saddam now that it has suffered through a brutal civil war that resulted in at least 600,000 excess deaths. There were multiple reasons why the Bush administration wanted Saddam out, but the claim that he had nuclear weapons was just a propaganda ploy, as was the claim that Al-Qaeda had a training base in Baghdad. The officials in the Bush administration knew he was not acquiring any such capabilities as the Downing Street memo makes. Interestingly, 90% of the chemical weapons had been destroyed in the Persian Gulf War according to the CIA. The other 10% weren’t ever located. Rusmfeld claimed that they had been located just prior to the war, but this was based on fabricated intelligence.

  • Joel August 31, 2013, 6:18 am

    “How does what the rebels will do change the moral obligation to defend the defenceless against the state?” you ask. Well, I’m not a consequentialist, but how can you seriously say that prudential and practical considerations have no bearing on whether we should adopt the policy you’re suggesting? If such a war would likely lead to a far worse situation as I have argued, doesn’t that count against this proposal? Are you seriously going to argue that, no matter what the costs may be, all that matters is that we avenge the blood of the Syrian people?

  • Glenn August 31, 2013, 10:24 am

    “Glenn, I’m afraid that you just can’t get away with claiming that taking out Syria will not involve any further deleterious consequences.”

    Where did I make this claim? A quotation would make this clear.

    (Also, please bear the blog policy in mind in regard to back-to-back comments.)

  • Ross August 31, 2013, 5:48 pm

    Ok I could wrangle over a few points here and there, but I agree that considerations of the general sort you outlined do make intervention in Syria risky. But the way I see it the current situation isn’t pretty, and sitting back and allowing what is happening to continue indefinitely strikes me as wrong. 100,000 deaths in two years is not an insignificant tragedy (not to mention non-fatal consequences such as displacement from homes, destruction of infrastructure and livelihoods etc). So even if there are risks involved, intervention does at least offer the possibility of the situation improving and hopefully eventually stabilizing. Doing nothing offers no such possibility. It is easy to become outraged at deaths which are the direct result of our activities. But doing nothing will equally condemn many thousands more to death and suffering. This should be kept in mind.

    There is also the issue of Justice. The rebels are not saints, I don’t think anybody is pretending they are. But nevertheless it remains the case in my view that it is the government of Assad, first and foremost, which bears responsibility for what is occurring. If Assad had consented to make real concessions, much as the King of Morroco wisely decided to do, it is likely much of this could have been averted. It is the right of peoples to resist tyrannical governments. The rebels, in their act of rebelling, are not acting wrongfully.

    The reaction of Russia I agree would be crucial. But I don’t think the west should halt its activities simply because the tsar in the North might get upset.

    At the end of the day the Syrian situation is a no win situation (especially for the Syrians themselves)

  • Ross August 31, 2013, 7:11 pm

    I think on reflection I more or less agree with you. While intervention is justified, we should still err on the side of caution.

  • Matthew Flannagan September 1, 2013, 1:24 am

    “Somehow I doubt you would be willing to argue that Iraq is better off without Saddam now that it has suffered through a brutal civil war that resulted in at least 600,000 excess deaths.”

    Given that under Saddam Iraq engaged in a war with Iran which resulted in over a millon deaths, and prior to the invasion of Iraq, around 500,000 people died due to economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN. The claim, that because 600,000 people died they are worse off than under Saddam is questionable.
    To say someone is worse of its not enough to show the current situation is bad, you have to show its worse than the previous one.

    I’d also love evidence that people in Afghanistan are no better off than they were under the Taliban. Simply because the US “totally failed to establish a Western friendly government” as though being pro western is the only determinate in asking the question.

  • Joel September 1, 2013, 4:15 am

    The Iraq war was the most unforgivable, blood thirsty, self-righteous folly that I’ve witnessed in American foreign policy. A lot of people died in that war, and for what? I’m simply amazed that you’re trying to keep this up, and I would have thought by now that the evidence speaks for itself. There is no way you can plausibly argue that Iraq would not have been better off if Saddam had remained in power. Is there anything more evil than civil war? How does destroying the government, the military, and even the police force, then leaving the country in anarchy improve the situation? The country is still recovering from this Sunni-Shiite war, and the government is still perilously fragile at this point. Of course Saddam was unrighteous, but he kept that country in order and that’s enough to make it worth keeping him in power. Your argument about the sanctions basically refutes itself since all of those deaths are the fault of the U.N, and Saddam was rationing the food supply during this time to try and keep his people alive. The sanctions didn’t hurt Saddam, but they sure devastated the people.

    As for the Afghan war, that is unwinnable at this point. General Petraeus has admitted as much already. The Taliban is winning and it will assume power again almost as soon as our troops leave those lands. Our goal is no longer to defeat the Taliban but to defend Afghan civilians. After nearly twelve years of fighting, the Taliban is stronger and closer to victory than it has ever been since the war began. They have already practically taken control of Kandahar, the capital of the south. So all that blood and treasure was spent for nothing since the Taliban will be left in an even stronger position than before the invasion in 2001. If we had left all the way back in 2001 after retaliating for 9/11, and not attempted the absurd imperialist project of building a democracy in that primitive tribal nation against the will of the populace at large, we would have saved thousands of American lives and billions of dollars, and the situation in Afghanistan would certainly be better than it is now.

  • Erroll G. Treslan September 11, 2013, 11:03 pm

    Interesting post. I would submit that there is little doubt that the international community should intervene if credible evidence of civilian killing (by whatever means) is uncovered in any jurisdiction. However, the question that has been left largely unasked and unanswered in the present Syrian situation is: who elected the U.S. to be the world’s policeman? This is a question well posed by American podcaster Dan Carlin in the most recent episode of his Common Sense podcast – I commend it to your readers: http://www.dancarlin.com//disp.php/csarchive/Show-260—An-Army-of-One/Syria-Assad-Obama

    Best regards from Canada.

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