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  • Writer's pictureChristopher J Finlay

Just and Unjust Wars in Syria: the Questionable Ethics of Bombing ISIS

Amongst those debating the justification for last December’s decision by the British government to join in the military intervention in Syria, some ask whether the UK is now engaged alongside its allies in a ‘Just War’. James Pattison, for instance, has argued that if we consider it properly, working through the key principles of what just war theorists call the ‘jus ad bellum’ (the justice of wars), it is not. The bombing of ISIS targets in Syria by the air forces of France, the USA, and now Britain, must be judged according to whether it pursues a ‘Just Cause,’ is motivated by the ‘Right Intention,’ and has a ‘Reasonable Prospect of Success.’ It does not, Pattison thinks, because war can be initiated only as a means of defence against the threat of international aggression or as part of a humanitarian intervention seeking to defend innocent people from those threatening violent harm within their own states. The threat of violence to individuals in Europe, Pattison suggests, is more immediately posed by ISIS sympathizers already living there than by the forces occupying cities across Iraq and Syria. And the plight of the many innocent people living under ISIS rule or fleeing it as refugees will only worsen as the air strikes intensify.

In a similar vein, Michael Walzer grants that ‘ISIS is an enemy that one wants to defeat,’ but he too cites the Success Condition to cast doubt on the justification for war by a ‘radically heterogeneous non-alliance’ that lacks any ‘agreed-upon end-in-view’ (echoing doubts raised in The National Interest by Robert Sharp and Jennifer Jefferis).

“which ‘war’ precisely are we debating? And…which war should we be debating?”

By contrast, Hilary Benns celebrated speech in the Westminster debate on December 2nd, 2015, argued forcefully that fighting ISIS was justified as a means of collective defence against both a material threat to the citizens of Britain, France and EU as whole, and a ‘fascist’ ideological force expressing its contempt for liberal freedoms and democracy through indiscriminate violence. Alan Johnson and Mark Pritchard (MPs, respectively, for the UK Labour and Conservative parties) both cited just war criteria in support of extended bombing.

While both arguments have their merits and shed light on important facets of the problem, neither addresses a set of deeper questions that really need to be considered in advance. First, which ‘war’ precisely are we debating? And second, which war should we be debating? The answer to these questions is neither self-evident nor wholly an arbitrary matter over which we have complete discretion. It requires a careful judgement of its own.

Syria’s (and the Region’s) Several Wars

As Benn’s speech acknowledged, Britain’s decision was not about whether it ought to declare and wage war but about extending the airstrikes against targets in Iraq in which it was already participating across the increasingly doubtful border with Syria. This already widens our initial question: should Britain and its allies be targeting ISIS at all, in either Iraq or Syria? But the case is even more complex.

Every war, we can say, is at least three wars in one. In the simplest case, there is the war that side A wages against side B, and we can ask whether A’s war is a ‘just war’. Then there is the war that side B wages against side A, which might also be interrogated in the same way. Finally, we can also speak of the ‘war between A and B’ as a whole. In Syria, things are even less straightforward: there is a whole alphabet of wars being fought all at once, complicating the picture still further. Some of Syria’s wars originate within the state. Others are at least partly proxy wars on behalf of foreign powers.

The current ‘war as a whole’ began in a confrontation between domestic critics engaged in political demonstrations and the Assad regime. This escalated into armed conflict following Assad’s decision to use military force to quell nonviolent revolt, after which rebel forces emerged, some aiming to defend the opposition against violent repression. So, one war, we might say, was between Assad and those carrying forward the 2011 revolt against his rule.

“it has become increasingly difficult to speak of a single ‘rebellion’ and a single ‘war’ between the rebels and the regime.”

More radical elements soon took advantage of the conflict to pursue their own aims, defined by variants of al Qaedas Salafi Islamism. Some of the extremists who went on to fight with ISIS were released by Assad from the prisons of Syria in 2011 in an attempt to make good his attempt to justify repression as counter-terrorism. As the jihadist components of the opposition have evolved and gained strength, particularly those that now operate under the ‘ISIS’ banner, it has become increasingly difficult to speak of a single ‘rebellion’ and a single ‘war’ between the rebels and the regime.

With the growing intensity and expansion of conflict – eventually gaining recognition as a civil ‘war’ by the ICRC in July 2012 – the influence of other, outside parties increased. Iran saw the conflict through the lenses of Shia interests, offering military support along with Hezbollah to a regime that held off the prospect of another Sunni dominated state in the region. This casts the conflict as a proxy for its rivalry with the influence of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. Russia’s support for its ally, the Syrian government, saw it intervening to attack rebel targets, only to have its attention turned towards ISIS when a civilian aircraft was bombed by allies of the terror group in Egypt. Russia itself might be said to be engaged in two wars, one on behalf of the regime against the rebel groups minus ISIS (which accounts for about 70% of its airstrikes); the other, for its own reasons, against ISIS in particular.

ISIS has established itself as an ambiguous force, party to a cluster of wars. On the one hand, it can be seen as part of a wider Sunni rebellion against Assad. On the other, it aims to dismantle the states of Iraq and Syria and sees itself as founder of a new ‘Islamic State’ encompassing the territories of both. It also fights against ethnic and religious pluralism in the region embodied in the Kurdish and Yazidi peoples, and now it has turned its attention to European and other western targets, initiating ‘war’ against France, Britain, America and their allies.

If the alliance against ISIS is as heterogeneous as Walzer says it is, this only complicates the picture further, suggesting it might even be seen as an umbrella for plural anti-ISIS wars rather than as a single side in a single war.

Which ‘just’ war?

If we were to ask whether the present conflict amounts to a just war, we first need to decide which war we should be talking about. From the perspective of the ‘greater war’ that began in 2011 and that has since seen so many ‘lesser wars’ break out as its constituent but ever mutating parts, it hardly seems sufficient simply to focus without further ado on Britain’s decision to extend its venture from Iraq to Syria on December 2nd, 2015.

The context in which the UK’s decision looks most likely to satisfy just war conditions is as part of a coalition of parties who share a commitment (for one reason or another) to fighting ISIS. Although ISIS is more than simply aterroristgroup in any familiar sense, its methods both within the territory it controls and abroad involve grotesque, public displays of violence against innocent persons (civilians, members of religious minorities or rival ethnicities, gay people, and others who exercise what would be regarded as liberal freedoms in democratic states). Its ideology is profoundly intolerant, anti-democratic, and illiberal. Benn’s denunciation of the group as ‘fascist’ may be anachronistic, but its rhetorical power stems from the fact that ISIS seems determined to realize something like atotalitarian form of rule. And, even if the agents that implemented its attacks abroad were mostly from the target states, the impetus – and probably the planning – for their missions issued from ISIS itself. So if we are prepared to accept that the ‘war’ in question is one waged by Britain and its allies against ISIS, then there is at least a strong prima facie case that it has just cause, whether viewed as collective defence against foreign aggression or as an intervention with humanitarian goals.

“If we were to ask whether the present conflict amounts to a just war, we first need to decide which war we should be talking about.”

The problem, however, is that deeply troubling ethical and political consequences arise from accepting the description of the Syrian conflict that gives the UK’s adventure the strongest appearance as a ‘just war’. Both ISIS and Assad (not to mention Russia) have an interest in redefining the conflict as a whole and, thus, in changing the narrative within which the justice of any decision to enter on a side ought to be judged. Assad has long sought to recast the conflict as one between ‘Terror’ and those committed to defeating it, thereby elbowing himself into the broad alliance that the Bush regime sought to forge internationally during the ‘War on Terror.’ Likewise, ISIS – like its al Qaeda progenitors – has its own favourite narrative. It seeks to redefine it as a War of ‘True’ Islam against western and other forms of polytheism, atheism and apostasy. And while it might seem that the group has a rational interest in seeing its enemies back down – the states of the EU, the members of NATO, the Kurds and so on – it seems equally likely to have a strategic interest in goading them into a fight that it calculates will do more to stoke resentment amongst Sunni Muslims in the region and elsewhere than to stymie the Islamic State in the pursuit ofits eschatological goals.

To regard the UK’s involvement in Syria as a ‘just war,’ therefore, demands that we accept a description of conflict in the region in terms that both Assad and now ISIS have worked hard to engineer. This should surely give us pause before we accept such arguments too readily.

The Rebel Point of View

There is an alternative. This is to resist the Assad-ISIS narratives and insist on viewing the conflict from those perspectives that they most urgently wish to obscure from view: above all, those of the majority of people in Syria who desperately need to see an end to both of these violently oppressive rivals. To see things from their point of view, we ought to define the war in the perspective of those who first stood up to the regime in those early days when we still felt able to speak of an ‘Arab Spring.’ We need to examine it through the eyes of those increasingly marginalized rebels and other opponents of Assad who even now donot propose to replace one violent dictatorship with another. This means that we must insist on continuing to regard the conflict principally as a war between the Assad regime and the people that it was its responsibility to protect but whom it continues to slaughter as a means of clinging onto power.

“to look at the Syrian conflict chiefly as the locus of a war between ISIS and the US-led Alliance against Terror, is to play the game in such a way as to risk benefiting Assad”

So if we are looking for a just war in Syria, the most credible candidate in this perspective has to be the rebellion of 2011 itself. But from that point of view, the bombing of ISIS is a mixed blessing at best. On the one hand, ISIS is a dangerous rival that those pursuing a true improvement on the Assad regime must regard as an enemy. But on the other, the decision to wage war only against ISIS puts the US, France and Britain by default into the position of de facto military allies of Assad as well as Russia. Unless a viable strategy for toppling the regime and replacing it with something better can be forged, the war against ISIS must therefore be regarded in the perspective of just war theory as an attempt to defeat a lesser evil at the expense of bolstering what has so far proven to be a significantly greater one. This is a further reason to follow Pattison, Walzer, and others in questioning the justice of the present war.

Of course, to say that the perspective of the legitimate rebel is the right point of view from which to judge the ethics of war in Syria is not to imply that doing so will bring to our attention a simple route towards peace. But it is a perspective in which we are less likely to lose sight of justice. To do otherwise, to look at the Syrian conflict chiefly as the locus of a war between ISIS and the US-led Alliance against Terror, is to play the game in such a way as to risk benefiting Assad – the most destructive, bloody enemy of the Syrian people – above all.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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