Missing in Syria debate: Weighing the ethics of war

Ali Watkins

As the Obama administration continues to weigh its options in Syria after last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack, the conversation has stayed away from one of the murkier issues of war: its moral implications.

A majority of Americans don’t support military intervention in the Syrian conflict; a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken the same week as the attack shows just 9 percent of U.S. citizens support an armed response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. President Barack Obama said Wednesday that diplomacy is still the ideal solution and that the U.S. is willing to work with whomever necessary to find a peaceful resolution.

But much of the public debate about using military force in Syria has revolved around the practical justifications for and against armed involvement in the embattled Middle East nation. But unlike past conflicts, this debate has largely lacked a moral discussion over peaceful vs. lethal options.

“Particularly in the U.S., the practical angle always comes first in the picture. This is about how much it’s going to cost . . . and so on and so forth,” said Francesco Mancini, senior director of research at the International Peace Institute.

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, pushed a moral agenda on Wednesday morning at the Peace Palace in The Hague. “Earlier today, right here in Peace Palace, I said give peace a chance,” he said. “Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking.”

But his plea was easily drowned out when, hours later, Britain courted the U.N. Security Council for approval on its draft Syria resolution. Although the council failed to reach an agreement on the resolution, it could still be put to a vote.

A smattering of moral and religious leaders have blasted Western calls for armed responses, urging caution and patience in the aftermath of the purported chemical attack.

Britain’s archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, warned Parliament members against what he called “rushing to judgment” in Syria. In an interview with the country’s Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, he said a simple solution “doesn’t exist,” but he cautioned against a quick reaction from Parliament as members returned to London for an emergency vote on the issue Thursday. Parliament rejected military action in Syria, and Prime Minister David Cameron said he would not override the vote in the House of Commons.

Back in the states, the Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, echoed Welby’s cautious position, saying the situation leaves him with a mixed response. “I’m really ambivalent and confused at this point. I tend with most Americans to not want us to get involved in another war in the Middle East. On the other hand, the human rights disaster in Syria is really troubling,” he said. “So I’m not really at this moment prepared to assign a statement opposing whatever the president is planning without understanding it more.”

On Tuesday, the Vatican’s newsletter leveled harsh criticism on Western nations’ plans for military intervention, saying the move was premature given the U.N.’s continuing investigation into the attacks. The U.N., it said, was caught in a crossfire as it weighed a continuing investigation against calls for authorization of armed responses.

“Various international actors appear no longer to consider the investigation a determining factor,” the newsletter said. Pope Francis has consistently called for peaceful approaches to Syria, and most recently he addressed the conflict in Sunday’s prayers. “With great suffering and concern I continue to follow the situation in Syria,” he said, according to a Vatican Radio translation. “It is not confrontation that offers hope to resolve problems, but rather the ability to meet and dialogue.”

But some experts said a moral stance, at this point, is severely diluted by two years of inaction on the administration’s part.

“The U.S. administration has cornered itself a little bit with this idea of the red line. . . . There is now a huge pressure on the administration to do something. And this something, at this stage, it’s about signaling,” said Mancini. “It is about punishing, and signaling to Assad that chemical weapons are not an option.”

But that signal in itself could carry mixed messages. The death toll in Syria has been steadily climbing since the civil war began more than two years ago. By only taking action after a chemical attack, experts said, the administration could seem passive on the myriad of other means by which Syrians have been killed.

“If you’ve seen any of the pictures, it’s definitely heart wrenching,” said Matthew Baum, a professor and expert on foreign policy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “You know, death by sarin is, I’m sure, horrific. But death by shrapnel is not a good thing, either.”

Mancini echoed Baum’s observation, saying an airstrike, at this point, implies that targeting civilians is only unacceptable when the method is a chemical attack.

“Chemical weapons are wrong, but traditional weapons (are OK). . . . As long as you don’t use chemical weapons, we’re fine,” Mancini said, when explaining the convoluted message an airstrike could send. “It’s a big dilemma, I think.”

By Ali Watkins
McClatchy Washington Bureau