A Syria ‘No-fly Zone’ and Just War Theory

Now that the White House has come to the conclusion that Bashar al-Assad has indeed employed chemical weapons on a small scale against the Syrian opposition, the questions over what to do next have taken on ever greater urgency. Speaking to CNN recently, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), said that "we should be able to establish a no-fly zone relatively easily." Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) also expressed his support for a no-fly zone, while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) stated, “The United States should assist the Turks and our Arab League partners to create safe zones in Syria from which the U.S. and our allies can train, arm, and equip vetted opposition forces.” So as the pro-interventionist rhetoric heats up, it might be to our benefit to step back and consider whether or not committing an act of war against Syria, and that is precisely what establishing a no-fly zone would entail, would be justified under the tenets of Just War Theory.

The term ‘just war’ was first used by Augustine of Hippo in The City of God, and the concept was later refined and codified by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century. Just War Theory had, until the advent of the Bush Doctrine of preventive war in 2003, commonly served as the set of criteria which had to be met in order for a nation-state to morally justify the commencement of hostilities against another nation-state. It consists of 2 categories: Jus Ad Bellum (right to war) and Jus In Bello (law in war).

To meet the requirements of Jus Ad Bellum, 4 conditions must be met: Just Cause, Just Intention, Just Authority, and Last Resort. The question we need to answer, then, is: does the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels provide the U.S. with Just Cause that would allow it to commit an act of war against Syria? At no time since the commencement of hostilities between the parties within Syria in March 2011 has the Assad regime attacked either the U.S. or any of its allies, skirmishes on the Syrian/Turkish border notwithstanding. In order that the requirement of Just Cause be met, the U.S. would had to have been attacked (or was in actual imminent danger of being attacked) by the Assad regime. This has not happened, and so the justification for the establishment of a no-fly zone would not be met. As such, the requirement of Just Intention would also not be met because a nation-state cannot commence hostilities without a legitimate cause and still claim right intention.

What about the requirement of Just Authority? Let’s say hypothetically that Assad had in fact launched a direct attack on the U.S. or one of its allies. While the U.S. would then have cause to engage in hostilities against Syria, it would, in order to meet the requirement of Just Authority, have to do so with explicit authorization from the U.S. Senate. Unilateral acts of war initiated solely by the Executive (such as the Nixon administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia) are verboten under Just War theory.

The condition of Last Resort would only be met once every last peaceful option had been exhausted. We are clearly far from meeting the criterion of Last Resort as things stand right now; the US and Russia are working on convening a peace conference between the two sides in Geneva this July and there still, according to Middle East expert Dr. Vali Nasr, remain "powerful economic sanctions that the U.S. could use to cripple the Assad regime."

The category of Jus In Bello has mainly to do with the conduct of a war once joined and as such is somewhat less of a concern at this stage, but a few points might be worth making. Three conditions, those of Proportionality, Discrimination, and Responsibility must be met in order to satisfy the requirements of Jus In Bello. Taken together, they are intended to serve as safeguards against indiscriminate violence against noncombatants and disproportionate actions against enemy nation-states. The principles of Jus In Bello are enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which, it never hurts to remind the war hawks in Congress, the U.S. is still a party to. If our recent history of Greater Middle Eastern interventions is any guide, we would be hard pressed to be able to honestly say to ourselves, or to the international community, that we possess the competence to fulfill any of these three conditions.

Writing at the dawn of the Cold War almost 60 years ago, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned against ‘the monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends.’ This is a lesson that has, I’m afraid to say, been lost on the most vocal proponents of war with Syria. If the United States proceeds to act on the recommendations of the interventionists without paying heed to the ancient and venerable tradition of Just War Theory then no good – despite the best of intentions – will come of the effort.

Until recently James Carden served as an Adviser to the Office of Russian Affairs at the State Department. He has contributed pieces on foreign affairs to The National Interest and The Moscow Times.