• Jules Gomes

Disturbing doubts over the bombing of Syria

‘But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make,’ says soldier Williams in Shakespeare’s Henry V, reflecting on the morality of war before the Battle of Agincourt. ‘Moral factors cannot be ignored in war . . . Moral elements are among the most important in war,’ wrote the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.

Is the Anglo-Franco-American strike on Syria moral? Why is there little or no debate on the morality of going to war with Assad and an ear-splitting silence on the part of governments in the West?

No religious or political leader has so far explored persuasively the morality of even one of the six criteria of the Just War model either to justify or question the morality of the strike on Syria: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality and prospect of success.

Is it because Western leaders are morally confused with the very first criterion of just cause? ‘But if the cause is not just, the king himself will have a lot to answer for’ is how a modern translation renders the text from Henry V. ‘Without just cause nothing that follows can be justified, even if it can be more and less virtuous,’ writes ethicist Nigel Biggar in his book In Defence of War.

A cause cannot be just if it is not based on truth. The Just War theory flounders in a postmodern and post-truth society where justice and truth have parted company. Justice is redefined as ‘social justice’ and truth is jettisoned in favour of relativism, perspectivalism, propaganda and the will to power.

A cause cannot be just if it is not based on truth.

There is no justice without truth. Justice cannot be based on falsehood or error. In formulating the Just War theory, Augustine of Hippo and his predecessors would have presumed the overlapping of justice and truth. The Bible treats justice and truth as synonyms when used in poetic parallelism.

Justice is turned back,’ writes the prophet Isaiah, ‘for truth has stumbled in the public squares. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.’ God asks Jeremiah to search the public squares in Jerusalem ‘to see if you can find a man who does justice and seeks truth’.

In justifying the strike on Syria, the coalition must answer the just cause criterion on two grounds: First, is it true that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack on civilians in Douma killing 42 and injuring 500 others? Second, does this cross the threshold for intervention as laid down by international conventions?

In February 2018, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis categorically stated that the US had no evidence to confirm reports that the Syrian government had used sarin on its citizens. This means the jury is out even on earlier chemical attacks such as Ghouta (2013) and Khan Sheikhoun (2017).

Last week, Mattis told Congress he ‘believes’ (not ‘knows’) that there was a chemical attack at Douma on April 7 and ‘we are looking for the actual evidence’ (not ‘we have found actual evidence’). ‘As each day goes by – as you know, it is a non-persistent gas – so it becomes more and more difficult to confirm it,’ he said.

The Just War theory flounders in a postmodern society where justice and truth have parted company.

In the last 24 hours, veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has spoken to Syrian physician Dr Assim Rahaibani, a source on the ground (though not an eyewitness) in Douma, who says that the patients were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the tunnels and basements in which they live on a night of heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.

One thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history if we ignore the error on the part of the intelligence services, not just of the UK and the US, but also of all other Western countries and of Russia when it claimed Saddam Hussein was in possession of WMD. Even Hans Blix, the head of the 2003 UN weapons inspection team, believed it.

There is the question of motive. Assad is winning the war against the rebels. His use of chemical agents would snap his precarious position with the West. Why not use conventional weapons as he has in the past with devastating brutality? Why chlorine? Why not sarin? Chlorine is a choking agent and not considered a weapon of mass destruction. Assad’s regime has stocks of sarin and mustard gas, not chlorine, according to the US Congressional Research Service report.

If chlorine was used, why is the coalition ruling out the possibility that the rebels may have been responsible for the attack? The rebels are radical Muslim groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra which is an al-Qaeda affiliate, as Charles Lister documents in The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.

Al-Qaeda has been working to acquire chemical, biological and radiological weapons. Al-Qaeda in Iraq detonated a series of crude chlorine bombs in Iraq from late 2006 through mid-2007. A study by the New America Foundation found a total of 16 chlorine gas bombings in Iraq, the last of which was in June 2007. On October 21, 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq launched chlorine bomb attacks by detonating a car loaded with mortars and chlorine tanks in Ramadi.

Islam, particularly in the theatre of jihad, sanctions the stratagem of Taqiyya or deception.

According to the 2004 Butler report, between October 2002 and February 2003 the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee reckoned that al-Qaeda has been involved in the production of chemical and biological agents in Kurdish northern Iraq. Rolf Ekeus, Swedish head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq from 1991-1997, warned in 2003 of ‘the chance that Iraqi chemical weapons specialists would sign up with terrorist networks such as al Qaeda . . . The chemical and biological warfare structures in Iraq constitute formidable international threats through potential links to international terrorism’.

Islamic terrorists such as Hamas who use women and children as human shields will have no compunction unleashing a chemical attack against civilians to provoke Western military intervention against Assad. Islam, particularly in the theatre of jihad, sanctions the stratagem of Taqiyya or deception.

Second, for a war to be just its cause would have to be sufficiently grave. The only kind of sufficiently grave reason specified by international law is genocide. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report The Responsibility to Protect specifies the ‘just cause threshold’ and extends genocide to a ‘large-scale loss of life’ or ‘large-scale ethnic cleansing’. The massacre in Douma does not satisfy this requirement.

Ethicist Michael Walzer argues that the first questions asked when states go to war, such as ‘who started the shooting?’ are ‘questions of fact, not of judgment, and if the answers are disputed, it is only because of the lies that governments tell. The lies don’t, in any case, detain us long; the truth comes out soon enough.’

It did in the case of Iraq, it will in the case of Syria.