It looks like the US might go to war or at least militarily intervene with Syria (also see here). I am usually against military interventions and I believe that the situation in Syria does not so far warrant justification for intervention. I will talk both about wars and other kinds of mass state sponsored killings (aerial bombings, drone strikes, etc) as military intervention (for the sake of brevity) but I think the same principles apply in both cases. Most military interventions of humanitarian a nature has been unjust in hindsight and from this history alone we ought to be cautious of any proposal for future wars. I usually tend to think in terms of the five criteria I will lay down below for justification in foreign military intervention on behalf of humanitarian reasons. I think the principles are common sense and conjunctive (meaning that all five must be satisfied to justify foreign military intervention). I also believe that there might be additional principles that warrant inclusion as further conjuncts or disjuncts (at least one must be true) and will modify my 5 accordingly if they are presented to me convincingly. I might simply have not thought about this issue as hard as I could have or haven’t been exposed to the issue to know of alternative thinking.
Here are my five
1. Consent. What I mean by consent is that some degree of agreement or endorsement ought to be secured from the population in which we are going to war on behalf for the intervention (in this case, the Syrian population) and that a majority of the population ought to consent to reasonably fair and neutrally worded opinion surveys.
Some reservations and qualifications: First several surveys might have to be taken (with different wording or across different times and sample places) to insure more stable results. But consent on behalf of those we claim to fight for seems like a no-brainer. Two: what a “majority” means ought to be left for debate in some public space but I think it’s reasonable that it should be a “large” majority, perhaps more than 80%. This ought to be stable over all samples so as to reduce the chance of regional and temporal volatility. A military intervention probably impacts the whole country in profound ways so care and rigor in the ways I have just outlines seems reasonable to me in surveying public opinion. Granted it is often hard to ascertain public opinion through polls due to the political situation in many countries (the Assad regime might not want foreigners meddling with polls) but secret polls are often effective and have been used by international community such as the UN. Finally, this should be informed consent. Meaning that the questions on the surveys ought to reflect reality and the grim possibilities of war. Just because a population may want to overthrow their regime doesn’t mean that they will accept just anyone and anyway to do it. Syrians may agree, for example, that Assad must forcibly go by overwhelming majority but they may not agree that the US or its allies should be the ones doing the over-throwing. They may also fear and reject allowing foreign military or non military help of rebels to overthrow their government for (reasonable) fear that the rebels are Islamic militants, for example. The survey must also make it know that wars of intervention often turn out really bad (especially for the civilians due to collateral damage or the subsequent military occupation to insure stability during the post-war rebuilding process). The common people often become worse off as a result (take a look at Iraq as just one example of a case where the population almost universally agree in poll after poll that after the US led invasion that they are substantially worse than they were under Saddam Hussein).
We don’t know what the Syrian people think at this moment. Worse still, no attempt has even been seriously made to ascertain their opinions as far as I know about foreign US led military intervention.
2. Proportionality. This along with 1 is commonly used by just war theorists to evaluate the justness of any humanitarian war proposal. This is the cure-not-being-worse-than-the-disease criteria. There must be reasonable guarantees that the war will not result in even worse humanitarian crisis than it aims to solve. Wars rarely solve humanitarian problems. We know this from history. The ones that do solve humanitarian problems are of massive proportions (such as Nazi extermination camps and Japanese imperial aggression in Asia). Is the Syrian crisis approaching this level of humanitarian crisis? I’m not aware of any studies that accurately show that it is. 100,000 people have died in Syria from the crisis according to UN’s numbers but we don’t know who is primarily responsible (Assad’s regime, his supporters, or the rebels). I suspect that all have roughly equal roles in the crisis but I’m not sure and I don’t know of any accurate and certain information that currently exists that decisively shows that the Assad regime is mostly responsible.
Keep in mind that according to some of the most reliable data we have on the Iraq casualties, about 1.5 million people (mostly civilians) have died because of the latest Iraq war and countless survivors are injured. The infrastructure destroyed and the whole country in deep fear of fundamentalist and fractional terror. There are now far more birth defects in Iraq from the radioactive munitions used by the US than Hiroshima after the nuke. As we see from this and many other examples, war can snowball out of control into internecine violence even when they are waged on behalf of humanitarian reasons (or at least ostensible ones).
What guarantees have been offered by military powers that Syria will not become another Iraq? What proof is there that the many rebel factions will be better safeguards for human rights and democracy than the Assad regime? How reasonable are these claims?
3. Legitimacy. With this and the two further criteria below, I suspect that they are a bit more controversial than the first two. But I think international law is important and its thus important that wars conducted must surpass some kind of legitimizing hurdle such as UN agreement. The international committee and its opinion matters in international affairs such as foreign wars. Unilateral declarations of wars are problematic partially because they don’t seek the consultation of the rest of the world in a democratizing and process and respects the rule of law.
4. Exhaustion. Diplomacy and other overtly non violent means must be exhausted before violent military actions taken. Sanctions may also be an option on this list.
5. Accuracy. The reasons given by the invading/attacking power must be accurate. Why have this criterion? The reason is basically the same as why you’d want the Constitution to protect you from unlawful searches. If the police thinks you have child porn on your computer but it doesn’t have any evidence, they don’t have the right to search your house even if the search yields, say, some drug paraphernalia. Ex post facto justifications are illegitimate for a reason: to discourage the authorities from indiscriminate searches by the authorities.
In the case of Syria, the prevailing narrative by those wanting to attack is that Assad is the primary perpetrator of the human rights abuses in his country. If it is shown that this is not true (even if other factors may justify an attack is subsequently found).
Those are the five criteria I think are reasonable. Furthermore, because killing is a serious business and modern military interventions which often involves killing on a massive scale and with significant civilian casualty are thus a fortiori serious and standards of proof must also reflect that seriousness. A relatively high standard of proof for each of these criteria ought to be satisfied; mild and merely plausible evidence ought not suffice. In criminal cases, the standard of proof is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Perhaps such a standard or higher ought to be considered for military intervention.
There will be some who think that the five criteria I have set out are too stringent making the chances of just wars of humanitarian nature unnecessarily restrained/conservative and increasing the chances of gross humanitarian crisis. They may have more lax criteria or standards of proof for example. But the onus is on them to show what their criteria are. If they have none they are basically holding that war ought to be subject to the whims of those in power. There will be some who accept some but not all of the criteria I have set out but still believe that intervention is advisable. In that case, the onus is on them to show that the criteria they accept have been met. I believe that not only has all of the criteria I set out above not been met (satisfying conjunctivity requirement) but that none have been met to even a minimally sufficient degree of proof and thus even if you only accept some but not all, the justification for military intervention will be unjust. Many of the western media claims are incredibly suspect such as the claims that Assad used chemical weapons on civilians. Not only is there little evidence of this but the evidence presented seems to implicate the rebels as the culprits who use them. For example, Assad refused entry to UN inspectors for months and only three days after granting them unlimited access to inspect weapons (what appears to be) a chemical attack occurred only 15 minutes drives outside of the UN inspection team. The US seems adamant not to investigate further stating that further investigation would be useless (one senior White House official stating that the evidence would be “corrupted” by Assad’s shelling of the sites) that and making clear that they have already reached a decisive conclusion (Cameron’s UK government also seemed to be just as headstrong about intervention, irrespective of pending UN findings). See the quote at the end in this article from Cameron).