Sounding Board



First, what seem to be the facts.  The United States and some of its allies seem to be convinced that chemical weapons were used by Syrian armed forces against the Syrian people in residential areas of Damascus.  Because of this, under the urging of President Barack Obama, the United Sates Congress is debating whether or not to take military action.

Russia, for its part, continues to insist that the evidence of use of chemical weapons is insufficient.  In fact, too, Russian support for the Assad regime is one of the major obstacles to achieving a peaceful solution to the crisis.  Russia has not said it, but it is almost certain that Russia will veto a UN Resolution authorizing the use of force if it should come.  China would be expected to follow.

Meanwhile, a sharply divided British Parliament has voted against joining the United States.  The Archbishop of Canterbury supported the decision.

But let us suppose that indeed the facts are that Syria has used sarin, a deadly chemical.  We will admit moreover that the thought of civilian populations being subjected to poison gas attack is revolting to civilized people.  Moreover it is certain that in international law the use of poison gas is prohibited.  What are the legalities involved in seeking to justify military intervention by the United States or the international community?

The use of chemical weapons has been banned by the Geneva Convention since 1925 and their use against civilians is considered a crime against humanity.  There seems to be very good reason to believe that this is being done by the Syrian government against the civilian population even if only as collateral damage from attacks against rebel forces.  In the light of these what can be legally done?  Is military action against Syria justifiable under present circumstances?

Under the just war theory in International Law, several conditions must be verified before military intervention may be launched.  The first is that any military intervention must be covered by a mantle of legitimacy.  The usual legitimating mantle is a resolution of the UN Security Council.  So far there is none.  And even if there should be, a Security Council resolution is subject to veto by any of the Big Five members.  What we are expecting is that any such resolution will be vetoed by Russia.

Is there an alternative to a UN resolution?  There is an internationally accepted principle called “Responsibility to Protect” established in 2005.  It is not a law but only a principle.  It is based on the assertion that sovereignty is not only a right but also a responsibility.  Sovereign states are expected to help prevent and halt four heinous crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.  According to this principle the international community has the responsibility to assist any state in fulfilling this responsibility.  The responsibility may include the use of coercive measures when needed, but military action should be the last resort.

But whether it is a UN-authorized action or one that is in response to the “Responsibility to Protect” principle, a serious difficulty is how to satisfy the requirement of proportionality.  The end of any action should be deterrence—to stop what is going on or to discourage further attacks.  The means to achieve the end, aside from having a genuine possibility of success, must not be an instrument for creating more harm.

It is highly doubtful that Bashar  al-Assad’s rule will be stopped by action against him. Moreover, there is strong likelihood that military intervention will lead to the escalation and spread of the conflict.

What alternative can there be?  During the Japanese–Sino War in the 1930s, the theologian Richard Niebuhr is said to have published an article titled “The Grace of Doing Nothing,”  and he is quoted as saying:   “We are chafing at the bit, we are eager to do something constructive; but there is nothing constructive, it seems, that we can do.” But the Holy Father says, yes, there is.  We can pray.

The Holy Father has expressed his concern about the futility of military action, thus: “To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution. Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.”  He added: “Without peace, there can be no form of economic development. Violence never begets peace, the necessary condition for development.  It is regrettable that, from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, one-sided interests have prevailed and in fact hindered the search for a solution that would have avoided the senseless massacre now unfolding.”

He buttressed his appeal by a call for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Middle East.  Last Saturday, the Philippine Church responded to that call with vigil prayers in churches and chapel.

The Jesuit general has also joined the Pope’s appeal and has expressed his view that the contemplated action of the United States and France would be a serious abuse of power.

Here in the Philippines there is nothing else we can do but pray.

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  • josh_alexei

    So what to do about Syria, Just Let Allah sort them out before anyone does something? Just like Rwanda, close to a million Tutsis been slaugtered by the Hutus and the world just watching the Genocide and those were Rwandas killing each others, mostly one tribe over the other and just like the Syrians, their Government and their Tyrant ruler over his people… I’d say, the US if nobody with them, just go alone and rain the tyrant and his fellow tyrants with cruise missiles and smart bombs and bunker busters so the would be tyrants would think many times over to follow suit…the same should be done to the Pigs of the Congress.

    • AguinaldoIsNotAHero

      Very good point.

    • Cue_Vas

      Plus Rwanda was a one-sided killing, not like Syria, where both sides commit atrocities.

      And, more importantly, Rwanda is not in an oil-producing region.

  • virgoyap

    This is a simple and a well balanced presentation about Syria. Thank you Fr. Bernas.

  • jamesgeorge

    Maybe,just maybe, the course of action should be to compel Assad to surrender those responsible for gassing civilians and to surrender all stockpile of chemical weapons to the UN, otherwise, strategic bombing will commence!

    • AguinaldoIsNotAHero

      So Assad should surrender himself to the US/UN because as President, he is guilty by command responsibility!

  • boyboy9797

    I believe it will be just a limited strike to downgrade the possibility of Al-Assad use of his stockpiled Chemical Weapons and to remove him from power so that civil war in Syria which caused 100 thousands deaths may eventually end. And as of today 9/9/13 as i read it from cnn article that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is supporting military intervention in Syria so i believe the case is strong against Al-Assad remember Saudi is the center of the Muslim World because of Mecca. Now i believe military strike is justifiable.


    Can war in Syria be stopped by just getting Assad alone? I am tired of hearing the wars in the Middle East and Africa.

    • rom

      try thinking middle east without Israel and US interest in the picture. there will b dictators and protests but there will be no war with hundreds of thousand of people died from actual war and war related ills like famine and sickness…

  • RyanE

    I guess the U.S. should stop acting as the World’s policeman. Also, the concept of democracy being envisioned by the west could not be enforced to other countries with cultures vastly different to those of the western nations.

    I believe that if no outside forces will intervene, time will come where equilibrium will just settle in those countries.

  • alisto101

    We can not do to help stop the bloodshed and I believe that prayer is not the solution, if the other parties are willing to harm other parties then it will continue to go on. History will show that war is the solution when a lot of lives and properties have been lost. It will only stop until there are victors in this struggle.

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