Would a Syrian War be Just?

Russell Moore
Russell Moore
2018 17 Apr

After the recent coalition bombing of multiple chemical weapons sites belonging to the Syrian regime, several people have asked me the question of what happens if such military interventions develop into a full-scale war in Syria: would such a war be just? I’ll say at the outset I don’t have a definitive answer to offer, but I do think we need to ask what principles would need to be considered if such an option ever comes to the table.

On the one hand, the question is not really a hypothetical. There is already war in Syria, a war that has been raging for some time. The question, though, is about the involvement of other countries, including our own, in that war.  The question is a good one, and ought to be considered long before any potential military action, not just during or after.

Just War Theory

Some Christians, of course, mostly in the Anabaptist traditions, would argue that no military action of any kind is ever warranted. Pacifism teaches that any violence of any kind is morally wrong. And while I am not a pacifist, I respect the view, and take it seriously. Most Christians, however, both today and in the broader history of the church, are not pacifists but hold to some version of “just war theory,” as classically articulated by Augustine. While not seeking to argue between pacifism and just war theory here, it is useful to examine the current situation in terms of just war theory to ask whether, on those terms, such a war would be justified.

Just war is not the opposite of pacifism. It is not militarism that justifies all military action, or justifies military action by reason of “might makes right.” Indeed, just war theory, at its best, does the opposite. While seeing war as sometimes being a regrettable necessity in the time-between-the-times of this fallen cosmic order, the theory holds that war brings with it tremendous moral consequence. Just war theory, then, seeks to bound in the justifications for violence.

One might compare just-war theory to the “exception clauses” view of divorce and remarriage. Some Christians hold that no divorce is ever warranted, for any cause. As with pacifism, I respect that view for the seriousness with which it takes the Sermon on the Mount, though I do not think that is what Jesus was teaching. Those who disagree with the no-exceptions view, though, would be wrong to take the opposite view, that marital bonds can be broken for any reason (which is what Jesus was teaching against). In just war theory, war should be a grave exception to the norm, which should be peace and order.

While there are several “planks” of just-war theory, let’s look at a couple that are relevant to the crisis in Syria. The first principle of a just war, that of a just cause, is clearly, in my view, met in this case. The Assad regime is lawless and murderous, guilty of war crimes against the people of Syria themselves. Assad has defied international law in a way that fully justifies action against his forces, such as the limited strikes we have seen so far. It is right that the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, are not yielding to the morally bankrupt vision that emerges from time to time in history, arguing that defenseless people should fend for themselves as they are being slaughtered.

What it Means to Prevail

What, though, if the international community were to move toward something more—toward full-scale war in Syria? This could result in a regional war along the lines of Afghanistan or Iraq or even into a World War, given Assad’s alliances with Russia and Iran. What principles would need to be considered if such an option ever comes to the table?

One of the first questions that would need to be asked is whether there is, to use the language of the classic Augustinian theory, a “probability of success.” The nations involved would need to know that there is a reasonable opportunity to prevail, which would mean, in this case, first of all, a definition of what it means to prevail. Regime change is certainly warranted in Syria, but regime change alone is not enough. The nations going to war would need to determine not only that the Assad regime is illegitimate (it is, in my view), but also what would replace that regime. Replacing one set of terrorists with another does not bring about justice or peace. We would need to know that any military action would not only be just in cause, and carried out with just limits, but also that such action would not make the situation worse.

That would entail also a clear communication, in the case of the United States, of what such war would mean, and why, morally and prudentially, it should be waged. Some wars are fought with no possibility of success because those waging them do not have the military capability to win. That’s not the case for the allied nations involved here. Sometimes, though, the issue is not ammunition but national will. Would the country be willing to sustain the cost, in blood and treasure, of a war in the Middle East? What would be the worst-case scenario, and would the country be willing to bear it? Those questions must be asked and answered.

Military action in Syria is a pressing one for us as citizens of earthly states, but Syria is even more pressing for us as citizens of the kingdom of God. As the church of Jesus Christ, part of our own earliest history is there. We have brothers and sisters in Christ in mortal jeopardy there. The refugees fleeing for their lives from Syria are our neighbors, created in the image of God. As the church, we have no military sword (Matt. 26:52). We may debate, and disagree with one another, about what, if any, military action the state should take in Syria, but we should be united as the church in the kind of warfare we have been called to: the spiritual warfare of prayer (Eph. 6:12).

As we debate, then, we should pray for wisdom and justice as we seek the Lord on behalf of those political and military leaders making decisions (1 Tim. 2:1-3), and pray for peace and order and justice and righteousness in Syria.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/zabelin