Morality and Legality in the Syrian Conflict

The Columnnist

It’s better to break the letter of international law if that helps us to uphold its spirit. Otherwise countless more may die.

After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya we thought we could take a holiday. Voices from the world-weary right urged Britain to act its post-imperial size and resign from playing global policeman. Voices from the utopian left counselled that, if only westerners would stop sticking their fingers into other people’s business, the world would return to its natural state of peace, and policing would be redundant.

Then came Syria in 2011. We sympathised with the rebels who took up arms against Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. We deplored his use of chemical weapons and barrel-bombs. And we lamented the unfolding human tragedy. But we told ourselves that we were powerless to stop it.

That wasn’t quite true, however. Had Syria been as close to us as France, we’d have found the resources to do whatever it took to restore peace, because our own national security would have been on the line. But Syria was two and a half thousand miles away, our national interest was only remotely engaged, and it just didn’t make sense to expend our limited power in sorting that mess out.

There’s nothing morally grubby about that. A government has a moral duty to preserve and promote the genuine interests of its own people, so far as justice allows. “What should we think, truly,” wrote the political philosopher Yves Simon, “about a government that left out of its preoccupations the interests of the nation it governs?”

It’s perfectly reasonable for people to ask why they should bear the burden of military intervention in faraway parts of the world. It’s reasonable for them to ask why their uniformed sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way. And the answer has to come in terms of their nation’s own legitimate interests.

Two years ago, parliament reckoned that we didn’t have enough of a dog in the Syrian fight, so it refused to let the government support the US and France in threatening punitive strikes against the Assad regime for its use of weapons of mass destruction.

Now, parliament is gearing up to vote again on using military power in Syria. With several hundred of our own citizens helping Islamic State to murder its way across Iraq, with £1 billion of taxpayers’ money supporting refugee camps in Jordan, and with asylum seekers in their hundreds of thousands banging on the gates of Europe, Syria has become our problem and solving it is in our interest.

Would military force be the solution? Not alone, of course. But often the soft cop of diplomacy is only persuasive when backed by the bad cop of force. The IRA decided to enter Northern Ireland’s peace process in the 1990s only after it had been wrestled to a military stalemate by the dogged persistence of the British Army. And right now there is little sign that either Islamic State or Assad is sufficiently fatigued to be susceptible to sweet reason.

If military force is needed, then someone has to deploy it. As a member of the Permanent Five of the UN Security Council, and as one of a small handful of nations capable of projecting force overseas, Britain has a special obligation to use its military power to help to punish egregious violations of international law and impose international order.

Ideally we’d act in concert with the rest of the Security Council. But since Russia is determined to prop up Assad, that could only mean joining the despotic Syrian regime in crushing all opposition, both extreme and moderate. The result might terminate the immediate jihadist threat, but it wouldn’t give the millions of Syrian refugees a tolerable political home to return to. Nor would it do much to enhance our moral self-respect.

The alternative is to use military force against Isis and the Damascus regime, in order to destroy the former and drag the latter to the negotiating table. That would require action inside Syria. According to some international lawyers it would be illegal, since the Security Council hasn’t authorised intervention and Assad hasn’t invited it.

For others such a myopic view can only be held by those who refuse to look beyond what Yale’s professor of international law, Michael Reisman, scathingly calls “the paper world of the [UN] Charter”. These legal literalists remain supremely undisturbed by the grave damage done to the law’s authority when its letter permits a despot to crush his own people indiscriminately, aided and abetted by one of the Security Council’s own permanent members.

They also remain wilfully oblivious to the fact that the sovereignty they seek to uphold is a legal fiction. Were there a genuinely sovereign state in Syria, we could expect it to contain and suppress Isis, and there would be no need for our intervention. In fact, however, vast swathes of Syria lie beyond the effective control of Damascus. So either we help the regime reassert its control (which we can’t do in good conscience), or we let Isis thrive within Syria’s borders (which neither we nor the international community can afford), or we intervene directly.

International peace urgently requires that the conflicts in Syria be settled. Humanitarian concern requires their settlement to suppress the jihadists and remove Assad. Military action aimed at those ends and undertaken by a wide range of states, both western and Muslim, would perform an international public service, even while necessarily motivated by national interests. And as in the case of Nato’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, it would save the authority of international law by breaking its letter.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford and author of In Defence of War

Professor Nigel Biggar argues that it is better to break the letter of international law if that helps to uphold its spirit.

Sir, Professor Nigel Biggar’s cogent ethical case (Opinion, Oct 10) for the UK to go to war in Syria remains open to challenge in principle and practice. His conclusion to “save the authority of international law by breaking its letter” could be echoed by any rogue national leader seeking an excuse to justify national self-interest. His call to “use military force against Isis and the Damascus regime” would open the way to a proxy war with Russia. It also lacks strategy, as he does not say whether he is calling for bombing (haven’t the Syrians suffered enough from bombs?) or boots on the ground.

There certainly is an ethical case for the international “responsibility to protect” endorsed by the United Nations in 2005, but ultimately it is only a reformed United Nations that can achieve this. Any actions short of such a mandate risk the taint of national or regional self-interest. The UK’s priority should be to strengthen the UN and loosen the grip of power bloc vetoes in the Security Council to make it effective in protecting innocent populations.

Clive Robinson, Garstang, Lancs.

Sir, The crisis in Syria is a call to action, and the headline on Professor Biggar’s pieces insists that “morality demands that we go to war in Syria”. But for whom and against whom?

The West has destabilised governments in Iraq and Syria, creating power vacuums and laying the groundwork for Isis. Continued action against the Syrian government will only prolong the civil war; only strong governments can resist the Islamist threat.

We have tried neoconservatism, and overthrown governments that we deem illiberal, even when they have presided over functioning states and have protected religious minorities. We have set up weak governments in their place — and have seen the consequences.

Charles Roddie, Fellow, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Sir, Nigel Biggar lucidly and persuasively puts the moral case for the UK to engage in military action in Syria. However, he does not in doing so also evaluate the plausibility of its success. This is also a requirement made by the “just war” tradition that he adheres to.

Whereas that success might have been achievable much earlier in the conflict, it is now hugely exacerbated by the complex involvements of Russia and seemingly innumerable other warring factions. Pressing the moral case should therefore be strictly conditional on a meticulous and professional military assessment of its feasibility. Only in the light of that will it then possibly have the moral credibility he claims.

The Rev Dr R John Elford, New Brighton, Wirral

Sir, Nigel Biggar claims, I believe justifiably, that had Syria been just across the Channel we would have defended ourselves with all our might. At a distance of 2,500 miles we may be in no direct, immediate danger, but if Islamist influence still seems remote and unthreatening to Mr Cameron and others they must be strongly reminded that Isis seeks to spread its vicious message universally.

The recent intervention by Russia only worsens the prevailing chaos in Syria. International peace and an end to human suffering are now possible only through enlightened diplomacy backed by urgent military action — breaking the letter of international law but protecting its authority, as Professor Biggar says.

Peter Barrett, Easingwold, N Yorks

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