US Strike on Syria Renews Just-War Debate

Catholic leaders and scholars, in the United States and in the Middle East, differ about whether the military action was warranted.

U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. speaks during a news briefing at the Pentagon April 14 in Arlington, Virginia. The Pentagon held a briefing on the latest development of the strike in Syria.
U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. speaks during a news briefing at the Pentagon April 14 in Arlington, Virginia. The Pentagon held a briefing on the latest development of the strike in Syria. (photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Serious concerns for the safety of Christians and noncombatants in Syria remain, in the wake of the late-night attack April 13 that the United States and its allies led on Syrian regime targets for a suspected chemical-weapons attack a week earlier in a Damascus suburb.

Various reports also cast doubt on what exactly was destroyed in the missile strikes. And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on the country appeared to remain firm as his military announced Sunday that it had taken full control over Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of the capital city.

Meanwhile, Catholic scholars, priests and Church leaders in the United States and Middle East were divided in the hours leading up to and following the missile strikes as to whether military action was warranted and whether the strikes carried out by the United States, United Kingdom and France could be squared with the Church’s just-war tradition.

“What is the clear objective to be achieved by taking military action? Define success here. What is it you would achieve? If success is showing the world that we can blow things up, that doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly good objective,” said Robert Kennedy, a Catholic studies professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

By contrast, Habib Malik, an associate professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, told the Register that the stated aim of the military action taken by the West was “sound and morally justifiable”: “not to allow the repeated and creeping use of chemical weapons to become a new normal in the early 21st century after the horrors of the gas chambers during World War II,” Malik said.

On April 7, the rebel-held suburb of Douma, east of Damascus, was reportedly attacked with chemical weapons. According to various reports, at least 70 Syrian civilians, young children included, choked to death in their homes. At least 500 people, suffering from burning eyes and respiratory ailments, were reportedly rushed to area clinics.

The United States and the European Union blamed pro-government forces for the attack, increasing tensions among world powers with Assad’s allies in Russia and Iran dismissing the allegations as bogus. The latest atrocity also threatened to escalate Syria’s seven-year civil war in which nearly a half million people have been killed.

Father Andre Y-Sebastian Mahanna, a Maronite Catholic priest in Denver who grew up in Lebanon and works to highlight the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, told the Register that the strikes sent a “clear message” in targeting chemical-weapons facilities and added that he hoped the military action would create some space for Christians in Syria to make their voices heard.

“I caution, and I pray that escalations don’t happen, and that we immediately put a plan in place to embrace the Christian community, and to embrace the Syrian people in not allowing a power vacuum to take place the same way it happened in Iraq,” said Father Mahanna, who was traveling to Rome and the Middle East after meeting with government officials in Washington, D.C.


Patriarchal Condemnation

In the region itself, the patriarchates of Antioch and all the East for the Greek and Syrian Orthodox churches, as well as the Melkite-Greek Catholic patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, released a joint statement April 14 condemning the “brutal aggression” by the U.S. that they said was “a clear violation” of international law.

The patriarchs further argued that the airstrikes had the potential to undermine the chances for a peaceful political solution in Syria while emboldening terrorist organizations.

Tobias Winright, an associate professor of theological studies at St. Louis University in Missouri who has been writing about the Syrian civil war for the past five years, told the Register that while the chemical-weapons attack appeared to be a just cause for intervention, whether or not military action was justified was another matter, given all the competing factions in the country that make it difficult to determine who is the unjust aggressor and who is defending life.

“This is a perplexus. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s a tragic situation, with a lot of evil involved, but there is no clean and clear answer. Who is really responsible, and what is the most effective way to do something about it? Those are very difficult questions right now,” said Winright, the co-author of After the Smoke Clears: The Just-War Tradition and Postwar Justice.


Papal Peace Appeal

At his Regina Coeli address April 16, Pope Francis renewed his appeal for peace in Syria.

“I am deeply troubled by the current world situation, in which, despite the instruments available to the international community, there is still difficulty in agreeing to a common action in favor of peace in Syria and other regions of the world,” the Pope said.

Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor of international relations at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that political leaders should join Pope Francis in his calls for a cease-fire and to increase humanitarian assistance in Syria while encouraging a political solution to the crisis.

“Unfortunately, these proven means of helping Syrians are not being considered,” Love said. “Instead, most of the discussion focuses on spending millions more dollars on military measures that have already not worked. The U.S. military has been bombing Syria for years, first bombing ISIS and then, under the Trump administration, bombing Syrian government targets.”

Love also argued that the U.S. military strikes in Syria do not meet Catholic just-war criteria.

“They would fail on many criteria, particularly that they would do more harm than good, and there is not a probability of success,” she said.

The Catholic tradition on peace and war holds that any military action must build a more robust and sustainable peace.

To fulfill the criteria for a “just war,” a proposed military intervention must be initiated by a legitimate authority only after nonviolent solutions have been exhausted; the cause for war needs to be just and the outcome must have a strong likelihood of success; the use of force must also be proportionate and limited to achieving victory; the indiscriminate obliteration of the enemy is not allowed, and noncombatants must especially be protected.

“The probability of success would not mean the probability that you could, through military force, depose Assad or drive him out of power,” said Andrew Kim, an assistant professor of theology at Marquette University who co-edited a volume titled Just-War Theory in an Age of Terror.

Kim told the Register that it would not be in accord with the just-war ethic to use military force as a symbolic act or projection of power, adding that it would have to be “ordered to the end of creating a more just state of affairs.”

Said Kim, “In this case, is [military action] more likely to bring about a more just state of affairs if this was not engaged in? Is this a last resort? And is the use of force the only way to do it?”


The U.S. Strike

On April 13, just after 9pm, President Donald Trump announced the United States and its allies England and France would be aiming to hit sites in Syria “associated with the chemical-weapons capabilities” of Assad’s regime.

“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States,” Trump said, adding that the United States was prepared to sustain the military response “until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”

On April 14, the president took to Twitter to report that the strikes had been “perfectly executed.” The U.S. military reported that 105 missiles were lodged against three targets related to the Syrian regime’s chemical-weapons arsenal, with 76 of those weapons destroying a facility outside Damascus and setting back Syrian chemical-weapons capabilities “for years.”

However, some reports indicated that Assad’s ability to deploy chemical weapons remained intact. Assad’s supporters even celebrated in the streets in defiance of the U.S.-led airstrikes. Russian officials also boasted that their military shot down most of the American missiles, a claim the Pentagon denied.

Despite concerns that further military action could lead to an escalation of hostilities in Syria and further destabilize the region, both the United States and Russia are eager to avoid that from happening and have established “working-level channels of communications” to downgrade the potential for a major conflict, said Michael Desch, a political science professor and director of the International Security Center at the University of Notre Dame.

Desch told the Register that there “is little doubt” that the Syrian military or regime elements were behind the chemical-weapons attack, which appeared to force the surrender of Douma’s rebels. But whether Assad is directly responsible for the attack is another question.

“With what appear to be relatively monolithic regimes from the outside, invariably, when you look inside them, they are less monolithic than you think,” said Desch, who added that it “is within the realm of possibility” that the order for the chemical attack was made at a level below Assad.


What Now?

Malik, from the Lebanese American University, said behind-the-scenes contacts between Washington and Moscow should seriously explore any mutual benefits both sides could derive from weakening the Iranian military posture inside Syria.

Said Malik, “The U.S. and Israel will clearly benefit, and Russia will find herself with a weakened (and hopefully somewhat chastened) ally — the Iranians — on her hands in the Syrian arena, the weakening and hoped-for chastening not having come as a result of any Russian action. Except for Tehran, there is a potential win-win situation here for nearly all players.”

Kennedy, from the University of St. Thomas, said the world is witnessing the final stages of the Syrian civil war as Assad’s regime consolidates its power and regains control of the few remaining rebel-held territories. As painful as it may be, a lasting peace in Syria might entail Assad remaining in power.

Said Kennedy, “If what we want is peace coming to Syria, then the final thing to admit is Assad is going to win.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.


Catechism and Just-War Doctrine

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2302-2317) authoritatively teaches what constitutes the just defense of a nation against an aggressor, according to EWTN. Called the “Just-War Doctrine,” it was first enunciated by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.). Over the centuries, it was taught by doctors of the Church, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, and formally embraced by the magisterium, which has also adapted it to the situation of modern warfare.

Some snippets:

2307: The Fifth Commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

2308: All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

2309: The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; and the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.