In this post, I explore the punitive justifications for the recent strikes against Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons. In the previous post, Sara was right to call into question the HI justification for the strikes provided by Theresa May. Indeed, even if one could assume that the strikes could satisfy the just cause criterion (and this is a big if), it’s doubtful that other ad bellum criteria could be met (proportionality and reasonable chance of success). The situation is Syria is complicated with multiple parties involved, either directly or through proxy. It is, therefore, difficult to determine what success would mean in this context and, correspondingly, what would be counted as proportionate force. I think Sara is right that the strikes could not be justified on the basis of HI. But, I ask, are there any other justifications for these strikes?

Traditionally, just war theory is highly restrictive with regards to what counts as just cause to turn to war. According to these requirements, only war of national self-defence (or in other-defence) can trigger a just response to the use of force. Recently, HI has been accepted as another justification but, overall, just war theory is restrictive rather than permissive. However, Michael Walzer – whose ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ is considered the seminal text on the ethics of war – believes that limited force should be seen as morally distinctive from war. In short, if traditional just war theory is restrictive in what injuria, or wrongdoing, can justify the use of force, the doctrine of limited force – jus ad vim – can justify military force in response to a wider range of threats due to the limited nature of the force used. Limited force is different from war in that the former lacks the latter’s ‘unpredictable and often catastrophic consequences’. It is, therefore, easier to justify than, say, a full-scale war.

Acknowledging the differences between war and force-short-of-war is crucial in understanding the justification for the recent strikes on Syria. This is so because on the traditional reading of just war theory, only self and other defence or HI could justify the use of force. Force-short-of-war, however, is more permissive and, thus, could satisfy other just causes where traditional just war theory cannot. The question now becomes what could possibly be the reason(s) for the strikes jointly conducted by the US, UK and France? I think there could be two possible just causes: punishment as retribution and punishment as deterrence. I note here that even though both retribution and deterrence come under the umbrella of punishment, they require distinct justifications.

With respect to the former, the justification would be that the Syrian regime deserves to be punished for the injuria caused. The strikes act as retribution to the alleged use of chemical weapons (subject to the rule of proportionality which I will address shortly). Regarding deterrence, the strikes could be argued as necessary to uphold the international ban on the use of chemical weapons. Deterrence, in this sense, could also be understood as not limited to the Assad’s regime but also to signal to other regimes that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

Do we have reason to believe that the strikes were to punish Assad? I think we do. First, the strikes did not seem to fit with any broader, long term American, British and French objectives in Syria. The main aim of the military operation in Syria (bar the strikes) led by the US has been to nullify the threat of the Islamic State (ISIL) and other designated terrorist groups. A secondary aim is to provide support (financial, logistic, and training) to selected rebel groups. Prior to the strike in April 2017, there was no recorded deliberate attack of US-led forces against the Syrian’s regime. This can be explained by the West’s hesitation to escalate the conflict and risk a direct confrontation with Russia and, to an extent, Iran. The targeted strikes on the 14th of April, then, were out of this context. The targets were directly linked to the Syrian regime’ chemical weapons programme. Thus, it’s logical to think that the strikes were, in fact, retributive punishment to the Syrian’s government for the use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, the strikes seem to uphold what former US President Barack Obama said was a ‘red-line’ for the Assad’s regime (a red-line which Obama failed to uphold). This is consistent with the strike in April 2017 when Trump ordered the US Navy to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat Airbase in response to the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack. The message seems clear: international norms on the use of chemical weapons must be respected. Failure to do so would result in military strikes to deter any state or non-state actor from using it in the future.

Thomas Cajetan, the 16th century Italian philosopher, once said wrongdoing demands vindictive justice, even in the form of force if necessary. If we think that the use of chemical weapons on civilians constitutes a wrongdoing (of a special kind), then limited strikes (force-short-of-war) to punish the wrongdoer could certainly provide a just cause.

In what remains, I sketch my thoughts on whether the strikes could satisfy the requirements of proportionality and success. If we think that the strikes were only to punish Assad, we need to ask whether the harms caused by the strikes were proportionate punishment to the initial wrongdoing, namely Assad’s use of chemical weapons (one cannot carpet-bomb a country in the name of justice). No civilian casualties were recorded, there’s no report of leaking chemical materials after the strikes, all targeted sites were of military targets and not dual-use facilities (those that can also be used for civilian functions). This suggests that the harms caused by the strikes were not disproportionate to the realisation of justice. The criterion of success, I hope, is clear in this case as it’s defined by the acknowledgement, and affirmation, that a moral wrong was committed and this demands some forceful response.

The case becomes less clear if the strikes were intended to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons. As Sara convincingly put in the previous post, it’s unlikely that Assad would be deterred from further uses of this kind of weapons absence significant presence of troops on the ground. Any force used, then, would fail the success criterion and therefore be disproportionate. One could ask, even if Assad would not be deterred from using chemical weapons but maybe other state and non-state actors would think twice before using these weapons? If that’s the case then, perhaps, there are some deterrent effects the strikes could bring. I think this is possible but for this to work, there needs to be an uncompromising rule where any use of chemical weapons would be met with the same forceful response. Failure to uphold this rule would result in the diminishing deterrent force of the strikes. In this sense, the strikes are justified because the ban on chemical weapons is a good thing to uphold, the question of whether Assad himself would be deterred is irrelevant.

Of course, in an ideal world, we do not want to give state the judicial role regarding when to punish other states for wrongdoings. However, given an UN Resolution would likely result in a deadlock and previous attempts to strip Assad of his chemical capabilities were unfruitful, the duty to act sometimes falls on individual states. Military actions-short-of-strike should be strictly governed by the rules of jus in bello (perhaps even a stricter regime) and uphold the safety of non-combatants, as were the case in the recent strikes. Thus, I think that the strikes could be justified as punitive force.

Anh Le (Guest Author)

I’m a PhD researcher based at the University of Manchester. My research is in just war theory, focusing on the moral grey zone between war and law enforcement.

My other interests include ethics of self-defence, rule-consequentialism, and political obligations.

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