On Wednesday, the House of Commons debated for ten hours about whether the UK should intervene in Syria against ISIS. Here James Pattison explores the ethics of their decision.
Numerous MPs stood up and offered their impassioned views. But most of these were oddly unstructured and badly reasoned, and failed to take into account glaringly obvious considerations, particularly against the intervention.
The most helpful framework for assessing wars such as in Syria is provided by Just War Theory. Just War Theory offers a series of principles to guide decision-makers about the resort to war (the principles of jus ad bellum) and the conduct during war (the principles of jus in bello). The principles have developed throughout the ages in light of systematic thinking and experience about war. Together, they provide a clear and compelling set of conditions that any war should meet.
Although three MPs (Stephen Doughty, Ranil Jayawardena, and Fiona Bruce) did fleetingly (and incongruously) refer to ‘just war’ in their speeches, the logical, systematic reasoning required of Just War Theory was noticeably absent in the debate. When one considers the war according to the central principles of Just War Theory, it is unjust. There are five conditions on resorting to war (jus ad bellum):
- Just Cause: The circumstances are sufficiently serious. Standard just causes are, first, when a state faces an imminent attack or, second, when there are ongoing or imminent mass atrocities in another state. This is the only condition that the war meets—ISIS violates basic human rights on a large scale. This banal point was repeatedly asserted by advocates of the war in the debate.
- Right Intention: The war must be launched for a legitimate purpose, which is typically viewed as only (1) self-defence or (2) humanitarian protection. The claims that the war has the objective of defending the UK are extremely dubious and perhaps mendacious. There is no obvious imminent attack on the UK from ISIS and, even if there were, this would surely be from those already within the UK, rather than those fighting in Syria. Many observers think that going to war will in fact exacerbate the threat to the UK. Any claim for the collective defence of France is subject to the same fallacies. This leaves the potential claim that it is a (2) humanitarian intervention. The rationale from the government contravenes this—the war is defended as necessary for national defence. Even if the humanitarian rationale were presented more fervently, it would be similarly dubious. Bombing ISIS is likely to kill civilians rather than protect them and at best only contain ISIS.
- Reasonable Prospects of Success/Proportionality: War must be likely to do more good than harm overall. The government’s very optimistic account of the bombing campaign would see it degrade ISIS and, together with ‘70,000 moderate’ local ground troops, they would defeat it. But even this (implausibly) optimistic account fails to consider what will happen in the longer term. Suppose that (i) there were a 70,000-strong moderate force, (ii) it defeats ISIS, and (iii) is strengthened by the Western intervention. This would still be unlikely to be enough to defeat Assad, given his Russian backing. The conflict could even spike in intensity and more civilians could die; Assad forces kill seven times as many civilians than ISIS, largely through indiscriminate bombing that constitutes a crime against humanity. A more realistic scenario is that the UK bombings add very little to those already ongoing, given that there are few ‘easy’ ISIS targets. It will do little to degrade ISIS. It will instead exacerbate the situation in Syria, as the additional bombing campaigns further radicalise Sunnis who feel that they have been abandoned, perhaps kill some civilians, worsen the humanitarian situation for those not killed, and increase refugee flows. Russia will continue its indiscriminate bombing campaigns in support of the Assad regime. The Assad regime will remain in power for the foreseeable future and continue its mass killing. More broadly, the UK will be seen to an even greater degree by those outside of the West as an aggressive, interventionist power that takes part in illegal, brutal wars.
- Last resort: Unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary, other measures must be tried first. This has not been met. As the excellent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee makes clear, much more could still be done to secure a coordinated solution; the Vienna Process is still ongoing and needs to be pursued fully before war should have been launched. Pressuring Assad and Russia to stop their indiscriminate bombing of innocents is key to reducing the recruitment of ISIS, but the UK’s joining in of the bombing campaign reduces any diplomatic pressure it could wield in this regard as it would be seen as hypocritical. More could also be done to pressurise those who allegedly support ISIS. Although the UK may not have much leverage over Saudi Arabia, it has more over Turkey, which still desires to join the EU. Much more could also be done to tackle the online media presence of ISIS.
- Legitimate authority: War must be authorised by the appropriate bodies. In this case, this is (1) the UK Parliament and (2) the United Nations Security Council, given that the military intervention does not have the consent of Syria. The Security Council passed Resolution 2249, which calls for ‘all necessary means’ against ISIS, but this does not authorise force, which is widely viewed amongst international lawyers as necessary for the action to be legal. In fact, Resolution 2249 was carefully crafted to be ambiguous to provide political cover for the intervention, rather than legal support.
The point of the principles—and Just War Theory as a whole—is to emphasise the need for (i) caution and (ii) careful consideration about going to war. Despite some exceptions (such as John Baron), neither was sufficiently present in the debate. This is, of course, now somewhat post-hoc, given that the intervention was approved.
What happens from hereon? In terms of the intervention, not much, for now at least. The UK will not engage in many more sorties than it is already doing over Iraq. The threat to the UK from ISIS will not suddenly increase (given that it is already bombing ISIS in Iraq), even if it will increase over the long term. The intervention was clearly designed to be more symbolic than substantive, to give the impression of ‘standing with allies’, rather than seriously attempting to defeat ISIS.
The implications for British politics are perhaps much more significant. The Labour Right has flexed its muscles and effectively forced through the intervention, since mass resignations from the Shadow Cabinet could have rendered Jeremy Corbyn’s position untenable. The Labour Right also now has a new figurehead and plausible rival—Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who spoke with a bloodthirsty fervour in defence of the war—and the whole debacle has given the impression that Corbyn is weak. This raises the question of whether several on the Labour Right voted for airstrikes, at least in part, because they wanted to weaken Corbyn. It is conceivable too that the Tory leadership foresaw this and knew that, in addition to any other reasons they had in wanting to go to war, the vote would weaken Corbyn. If this is right, it would render the war even more morally problematic: going to war even partly in order to secure domestic political advantage contravenes the whole spirit of Just War Theory.