Early on Saturday, 14 April, it was announced that the US, UK and France had conducted targeted strikes on three targets in Syria – a chemical weapons and storage facility, a research centre and a military bunker – in response to Assad’s (alleged) use of chemical weapons in Douma.  The reaction to this news was mixed. One key problem that was highlighted was the question of the legality of the strikes, under both domestic and international law. However, although these are of course very important issues, a different one has remained relatively unexplored: could these strikes be permissible from a moral perspective? Given that international law is largely customary, and given that law doesn’t exhaust the limits on our behaviour, this is a crucial question.

There are a number of ways in which the resort to strikes on regime targets in Syria could be justified. The common moral framework for thinking about the morality of war, just war theory, recognises a number of reasons for legitimate use of force: self-defence against aggression, defence of another state against aggression and, increasingly, intervention to alleviate humanitarian suffering. In this post and the next, Anh Le and I will consider whether the strikes could be justified according to the standards set by just war theory. Here, I will consider possibly the most controversial just cause: intervention in order to stop severe suffering. In the next post, Anh will investigate whether the strikes can be considered morally legitimate as forms of punishment.

According to the UK government, the strikes constituted “military action to alleviate the extreme humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability”. The government argues for the legality of the strikes by appealing to the international legal standards for humanitarian interventions (HIs). The strikes were legitimate, it claims, because they satisfied the conditions of a legitimate HI. Legally speaking, this argument is shaky to say the least. But from an ethical perspective, it could be claimed that the current legal rules on interventions are too strict. Theresa May suggested as much when she claimed that, had they waited for UN approval (as the law requires), the action would surely have been vetoed by Russia. This raises the question: could the humanitarian intervention argument constitute the best moral case for these strikes?

Both legally and morally, the standard, mostly undisputed, instances in which HI is permissible are genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The UK’s position appears to be that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime constitutes a war crime. The first question that needs to be raised here, is why? Though horrific, the number of casualties caused by chemical weapons is dwarfed by the casualties Assad’s forces have caused by conventional means. What is it that makes the former so much worse than the latter?

One possible difference between chemical and conventional weapons is the way in which they kill people. Eye-witness reports from Douma described victims who “were twitching, others [who] had abnormal pupils, and some were foaming at the mouth”. The moral problem with such chemical weapons compared with conventional weapons, it could plausibly be argued, is that they kill or harm in an unnecessarily painful way. Especially when you consider that modern weapons are becoming increasingly precise and discriminate, the suffering caused by chemical weapons is excessive and necessarily disproportionate.

The other reason why chemical weapons (as well as biological weapons, landmines, or cluster munitions) could be considered worse than other weapons is that the effects of their use are very difficult to contain. As a result, there is a sense in which these kinds of weapons are by their very nature indiscriminate. As I’ve argued here before, the use of indiscriminate weapons is practically always wrong.

So it seems reasonable to think that there is a moral difference between chemical weapons and (many) conventional weapons. But does this mean that it was morally permissible to intervene against the Syrian regime because they used chemical weapons? This doesn’t necessarily follow.

The reason I am hesitating here is less to do with the question of whether preventing the use of chemical weapons is a just cause, but with the other necessary conditions for a legitimate humanitarian intervention. In order for any military action to be morally permissible, just war theory suggests it needs to satisfy a number of requirements, known as jus ad bellum. These requirements typically include: just cause, legitimate authority, reasonable chance of success, right intention, proportionality, and last resort.

Assuming for the sake of argument that stopping the use of chemical weapons constitutes just cause, my view is that there remain important issues regarding the success, proportionality, and last resort requirements. Jeremy Corbyn, UK Leader of the Opposition, suggested that non-violent ways to try to prevent the future use of chemical weapons had not been fully exhausted, effectively questioning whether the strikes satisfied the last resort requirement. The condition I’m most interested in, however, is the requirement that HIs have a reasonable chance of success. This requirement is moreover closely linked to the requirement of proportionality – the requirement that any harm caused is proportionate to the good achieved. If use of force is very unlikely to be successful, then it will struggle to meet the proportionality requirement.

These two requirements raise a number of issues. First, proportionality is notoriously difficult to determine. For instance, what should the harm caused be proportionate to? Should it be proportionate to the harm that has already been caused, or to the harm that would counterfactually have occurred had the intervention not taken place? And if, as seems plausible, proportionality requires the latter baseline, how can we estimate this? In a conflict as intractable, and with an adversary as difficult to read as Assad, these questions are especially difficult to answer.

Second, we need to consider what “success” really means in the context of HIs. This is both a general issue with the success condition in the context of HIs, and with the humanitarian justification for these strikes in particular. In general, it seems that when interventions are considered permissible, “success” would involve either effecting a significant change in a state’s policy, or, more likely, regime change of some sort. Achieving these goals would likely require a combination of tactics, including a significant presence on the ground. The 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo was, to some extent, effective and conducted exclusively from the air. However, as the situation in Libya makes clear, there is no reason to think that this is something interveners can safely assume.

In other words, if the goal of the Syrian strikes was to alleviate the suffering caused by Assad’s use of chemical weapons, then the intervention should have been conducted in a way that could be considered to have a reasonable chance of achieving its aim. Previous strikes by the US didn’t discourage Assad, and there is no reason to think that these strikes will achieve their intended aim. This means that the use of force was disproportionate. The strikes appear mostly symbolic – but symbolism won’t alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering and so the UK Government’s appeal to the humanitarian intervention paradigm can only be considered insincere.

Sara Van Goozen

I am a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York. My research interests are in global ethics, just war theory and global justice. My book “Distributing the Harm of Just Wars” is out now with Routledge.
I am the editor of Justice Everywhere’s series on pedagogy and the practice of teaching philosophy, Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.