Syria and the Just Use of Force Short of War

| September 2013
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As the international crisis following the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons unfolds, there seems to be consensus that the world community cannot sit idly by. Something must be done, and according to the Obama Administration and certain allies, that something is, or was until recently, the recourse to the use of force—the use of limited force, to be precise.

Obama’s predilection for the use of force is informed by, or at least reflects, certain moral considerations. Throughout his tenure as president, Obama has turned to the concept of just war for ethical guidance. He famously cited this concept in his 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The principles of just cause and last resort, proportionality and discrimination, have been integrated into policy documents such as the 2010 National Security Strategy. And Obama used the language of just war to defend not intervening prematurely in Syria and Iran during the 2012 presidential debates.

Obama’s just war philosophy has been constructed as a departure from the large scale democracy-building wars fought by the Bush administration. As I have argued elsewhere, the lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq led to an emphasis on the principle of last resort and legitimate authority grounded in multilateralism, as well as a focus on the use of force short of war.1

While critics chastise Obama for wanting to embroil the United States in another war, it is important to realize that his interpretation of the principles of just war have led him to the conclusion that waging war against Syria—a full scale war as similar to the one waged in Iraq to topple the Saddam Hussein regime—would not be justified. He has long maintained that the threshold of last resort for employing of such a quantum of force has yet to be crossed, meaning there are other mechanisms to be tried first. Even the crossing of the “red line” by the Assad regime fits this moral framework.

Yet the Obama administration has spoken of punishing the Assad regime, of deterring future attacks, of reinforcing the norm against chemical weapons use, and of diminishing the regime’s military capabilities. Consistently, these threats have been framed in the language of force short of war: “I will not put American boots on the ground. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. . . . This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capacities.”2 Accordingly, though full-scale war is off the table, limited military actions or uses of force are very much on the agenda.

There is reason to differentiate between limited force and war: the former, being more circumscribed in scope, lacks the unpredictable and often catastrophic consequences of interstate war. A few days of punitive missile strikes is, in theory, less intense and less destructive than invasion and occupation. The list of targets in Obama’s crosshairs is purported to include fewer than 50 sites, which is far more limited than previous campaigns such as Libya and Kosovo.3

This limited scope translates into a less costly affair—financially and in terms of destruction and loss of human lives. If one believes that limited strikes can be successful at attaining concrete strategic outcomes—a point that has been contested in recent U.S. history4—then Obama’s strategy in Syria offers a viable alternative in between full scale interstate war and diplomacy.

Assuming we should distinguish between war and limited force, which I think we should, then the question remains: How do we judge if such an action is morally justified? In an article published in the spring 2013 issue of this journal, I advanced the view with my co-author, Megan Braun, that the ethical principles informing the requirements of jus ad bellum are not simply transferable to the evolving international system but that their meaning changes significantly in a context of limited force, and a new principle—the probability of escalation—is required. More specifically, we argued that just cause could be interpreted more permissively, but that this permissiveness needs to be curtailed by paying heed to the probability of escalation criterion. If engaging in limited strikes has a high probability of resulting in escalation, then such actions are not justifiable, even though there may be just cause. We concluded that the UN Security Council should serve as a base criterion of legitimacy, but allowed states to argue for exceptions in hard cases or where the collective decision-making process is flawed.5

Obama has made the case that upholding the norm against chemical weapons is a just cause for a targeted military strike. While enforcing such norms is not a traditional just cause for war, it could be construed as a just cause for limited strikes if one accepts the claim that using limited force allows for a more permissive reading of the right to self-defense permitted by Article 51 in the UN charter. However, even if we accept this premise, having just cause is not enough to legitimize the use of force.

The next question one has to ask is: Does the case of Syria satisfy the probability of escalation criterion? There is clearly fear that U.S intervention would lead to some kind of escalation. Critics have warned that U.S. strikes could lead a desperate, cornered Assad regime to defend his sovereignty with whatever means necessary, including the further use of chemical weapons. Other forms of escalation could include the need to have U.S. “boots on the ground” to secure the chemical weapons, mission creep that requires more force to prompt regime change, intra-regional war including missile strikes on Israel by Hezbollah and Iran, and terrorist attacks on the West.6

While it is hard to gauge what level of escalation might occur, it is unlikely that U.S. strikes would be met without response. What is ethically required by decision-makers is to balance the benefits of limited strikes against the predicted consequences of escalation. The benefits of limited strikes may include enforcing the global norm against chemical weapons use, curtailing the capacity of the Assad regime, protecting civilians, and deterring future parties from acting in similar ways; the consequences of escalation include a high probability of inter-regional war. The violence has already spilled over into Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel, and there is a realistic fear that a U.S. strike would open the flood gates. This would lead to a much broader scale of destruction than is already happening, put countless more civilians at risk, and thus defeat the purpose of limited strikes, which is to uphold the chemical weapons norm while avoiding the unpredictable and widespread destructive consequences of war.

Obama has minimized the risk of escalation by categorically rejecting the “boots on the ground” scenario, downplaying the threat posed by Assad to U.S. interests, and lauding the strength of U.S. allies in the region to defend themselves. That being said, if there is one thing to be learned from recent experiences of using force to “defend our ideals and principles, as well as our national security,” it is the use of force does not always lead to the ideal outcomes we envision.7

I think that if one takes the probability of escalation seriously as a moral criterion, then the risks of escalation are too great to justify limited strikes. Such strikes would certainly not end the civil strife but would serve to stoke various fires of violence, with unpredictable consequences. Moreover, the ability to enforce the norm of chemical weapons use and to deter future uses is possible at this point without limited strikes and the risky consequences that these entail. Somewhat paradoxically, it is the probability of escalation that makes these possible.

The eleventh hour deal between the United States and Russia to dismantle the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile is a case in point. Given the precedent set by Obama to use limited force—the Libya intervention, the drone campaigns, and the Bin Laden raid—there is reason to believe that the United States could strike regardless of what the rest of the world says, which would entail the risks of escalation discussed above. But neither country wants the escalation of violence because both would be burdened by it. The probability of escalation therefore provides incentive to create a pathway to deescalation, which is what we see happening now.

Whether Assad’s Syria actually turns over all of its weapons is probably less important than ensuring he never uses them again. If the goal of the Obama regime is to prevent chemical weapons being used again, then playing on the fear of escalation has created the context for a status quo solution: “we won’t bomb you if you do not use them again.” This diplomatic breakthrough does not solve the Syrian conflict, but it may resolve the issue of Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons without having to fire a missile. By setting a precedent agreed upon by Russia and the UN, the Assad regime will hopefully be hard pressed to run counter to the views of its staunchest ally, and effectively be reduced to killing by normal means.

That said, there is a doubly troubling element to this moral reasoning. The first is the importance of a credible threat of limited strikes that risk provoking escalation being used to jumpstart the diplomatic efforts. This is a risky game to play, especially if it becomes the precedent for future global crises of a similar sort where limited force is seen as the solution. The second troubling element is the fact that preventing the use of chemical weapons does not stop the killing, though one could hope that these diplomatic efforts would lead to a breakthrough to end the violence.

The subsequent risk, of course, is that the Assad regime calls the U.S. bluff and uses chemical weapons again. Would such a flagrant rejection of international diplomacy legitimize the use of force? I think the answer could be yes, if it was approved by the UN Security Council. At the current phase of the crisis, Russia has threatened to veto any UN resolution authorizing the use of force. However, a second violation by the Assad regime may change the Russian view, which would further isolate the Syrian regime and break through the gridlock among the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council. What such an intervention would look like is difficult to say, given the complexities of the conflict. However, having UN support would diminish the risk of escalation by lending more legitimacy to the use of force in Syria, which would go much further to enforcing the norm against chemical weapons use than unilateral limited strikes by the United States and France.

  1. Daniel Brunstetter, “Trends in Just War Thinking during the U.S. Presidential Debates 2000-12: Genocide Prevention and the Renewed Salience of Last Resort”, Review of International Studies, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0260210513000028, published online 23 April 2013.
  2. Barack Obama, “Transcript: Obama’s address on Syria”, September 10,  2013, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/09/10/transcript-obamas-address-on-syria/
  3. Thom Shanker, C.J. Chivers, and Michael R. Gordon, “Obama Weighs ‘Limited’ Strikes Against Syrian Forces”, August 27, 2013, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/28/world/middleeast/obama-syria-strike.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
  4. Micah Zenko, Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2010.)
  5. Daniel Brunstetter and Megan Braun, “From Jus ad Bellum to Jus Ad Vim: Recalibrating Our Understanding of the Moral Use of Force”, Ethics & International Affairs 27, 1 (2013), pp. 87-106.
  6. Shanker, Chivers, and Gordon, “Limited’ Strikes.”
  7. Obama, “Transcript.”
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