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Just war, theology and bombing Syria

Syria statsDiscussion about Just War theory and bombing Syria last week mostly focussed on whether or not we should initiate war—though that was a moot point since we have been bombing ISIS in Iraq for more than a year. But it was assumed that we were considering the dimension of jus ad bellum, whether there was a just case for going to war in the first place.

David Robertson at Christian Today set out the criteria helpfully and reflected on whether the various conditions could be met.

Although the working out of this is complex, the conditions for a just war are simply laid out:

  1. It must be fought by a legally-recognised authority. Government, not private individuals or corporations.
  2. The cause of the war must be just.
  3. There must be an intention to establish good or restrain evil.
  4. There must be a reasonable chance of success.
  5. The war must be a last resort.
  6. Only sufficient force must be used and civilians must not be involved.

I think Robertson’s analysis is convincing, and I was astonished that Justin Welby could claim that ‘the criteria have been satisfied.’


The first criterion is usually applied to the power which is initiating the action (in this case, Britain), but it is worth considering the nature of the power against which action is being taken. As many commentators point out, ISIS is not actually a state in any normal sense of the word. But, more significantly, the ‘terrorist threat’ we face bears little relation to the actual structures of ISIS, because those committing atrocities are most commonly citizens of the states where the atrocities happen. As Robertson notes:

If Islamism is an ideology which sees the West as an oppressive anti-Islamic force, will dropping bombs decrease or increase that perception? How does bombing a small Syrian city protect London, Birmingham and Glasgow from terrorist violence? If we are, in the words of David Cameron, to “hit them in their heartlands right now”, should we not be bombing Brussels, rather than Raqqa? It is a ridiculous ‘logic’, but terrorists are far more likely to come from Molenbeek (the area of Brussels where the Paris attacks were planned) than Raqqa. Brussels has a 25 per cent Muslim population, 98 per cent of whom are Sunni Muslims, the very group who make up the basis of ISIS.

On Radio 4 this morning, Juliette Kayyem, a commentator on US security issues, noted:

People are being radicalised with metrics we do not understand, and since they have easy access to heavy weaponry, we cannot consider zero attacks as a realistic measure of success.

The key words here are ‘we do not understand’. Nicolas Henin, the French held by ISIS for 10 months whose fellow captors were mostly beheaded, highlights the effect of bombing on ISIS recruitment and radicalisation.

“Strikes on Isis are a trap. The winner of this war will not be the parties that have the newest, most expensive, most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to have the people on its side…At the moment, with the bombings, we are more likely pushing the people into the hands of Isis. What we have to do, and this is really key, we have to engage the local people.”

There was an easy way to make Islamic State “lose ground at high speed” he said. “It would be for the international community to take the decision that all the Syrian regions that are held by the opposition are no-fly zones; no-fly zones for everybody. Not the coalition, not the Russians, not the regime. Nobody. So, actually to provide security to the people would be devastating for Isis and this is what the international community should focus on,” he said.

Syrian community leaders in this country echo this sentiment:

In this context, selectively bombing ISIL from the air will not win the support of those on the ground who want to defeat it. It will not free them to strengthen their communities once again and resist ISIL once again.

You don’t need a visa or a passport application process in order to switch sides. All this highlights that fact that George W Bush’s phrase after 9/11 ‘war on terror’ was at best a category error and at worst a serious strategic mistake.


In case we were in any doubt about the impact of bombing, and still live in the clean world of bomb-sight videos assuring us of the pinpoint accuracy of our precision weapons, where the only danger is of unfortunate ‘collateral damage’, it is worth hearing the viewpoint from the ground.

All of my city has changed. I walk down the street and I don’t recognise it. Huge buildings fell to the ground. It reeks of fire and death. Sometimes I leave a place for less than 30 minutes. When I get back, it has been turned into a totally different place. This has happened to all of us who live in eastern Ghouta.?? I don’t trust any country, Arab or Western, who wants to help by making more air strikes, because air strikes only kill more civilians…

ISIS isn’t affected by these air strikes as much as the civilians.?? The UK can help politically by pushing the regime to stop killing us, or by helping us open humanitarian roads for civilians who have been living under siege for more than two and a half years. They could also send observers to check the truth and find out what is going on.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 22.30.51We have clearly moved from the issue of jus ad bellum to jus in bello, the issue of the conduct of war, and there has been a surprising lack of comment on this so far. (For those concerned with such things, bellum is second declension neuter, so the accusative with ad is still bellum whilst the dative with in is bello.) The first target, within hours of the Commons vote, was not a group of ISIS fighters, nor military equipment, nor a military installation—but an oil installation. The Just War principal of ‘Distinction’ addresses the personal and the structural issue:

Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of distinction. The acts of war should be directed towards enemy combatants, and not towards non-combatants caught in circumstances they did not create. The prohibited acts include bombing civilian residential areas that include no legitimate military targets, committing acts of terrorism and reprisal against civilians, and attacking neutral targets.

And the principle of ‘Military necessity’ develops the second point further:

An attack or action must be intended to help in the defeat of the enemy; it must be an attack on a legitimate military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

This makes the bombing of oil fields—with a view to reducing the income of ISIS—barely defensible. The overall effect of this will be to degrade the infrastructure of the country, which will make rebuilding Syria when the conflict finally ends more difficult than ever. No doubt Western contractors will be bidding for the substantial contracts necessary to rebuild what Western fighters have bombed, as happened after the Iraq War.

In an industrialised society, destroying the means by which a state generates income and therefore feeds its people, violates Islamic codes for the conduct of war which forbid the destruction of crops—so we are not doing well by any measure.


The final Just War criterion to reflect on is that of Last Resort.

Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. It may be clear that the other side is using negotiations as a delaying tactic and will not make meaningful concessions.

If anything, this is the hardest to satisfy. Each of the Brimstone precision bombs costs around half a million pounds to deliver overall; I wonder if we have expended that much in alternative strategies of diplomacy and humanitarian aid? Isn’t is strange that, in a time of shortage of other funds, it becomes remarkably easy to find money for arms. There is compelling evidence not only that Turkey is funding ISIS, but that they are also providing the route into the West for ISIS oil supplies, and allowing radicalised Western Muslims to cross the border to join ISIS. Note that Turkey is one of our NATO ‘allies’, and that on the map above airbases in Turkey are apparently part of the ‘coalition.’ So why are we destroying Syrian infrastructure when the issue of oil sales could be addressed by another, peaceful means?

I was rather reluctant to engage in the Just War discussion, since I wasn’t convinced that it had enough interest and ‘bite’ on the current conflict. As it turns out, the criteria offered are highly relevant—but will no doubt be completely ignored.


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9 Responses to Just war, theology and bombing Syria

  1. Ali Campbell December 7, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    As with Iraq (though less so with Afghanistan) what is at “play” for those in power is who gets to construct, build and make money after whatever “end game” gets us to a place where power in Syria can be removed – ultimately – from Assad. Groups (be they IS or Al-Qaeida or even the Taliban were simply not known to us 20 years ago – the First Iraq war (on the premise of helping Kuwait) created the space, the vacuum within which radical ideology could flourish. We are dealing with Hydra in the Middle East, the longer we take this route of military force to supposedly deal with it, the more will emerge. And as others have said elsewhere, you can’t bomb an ideology, We are not tackling nation states, but continue with strategy that believes we will eventually win by trying to fight a conventional war . . . we devastate other places on the planet with impunity now. It is disgusting, immoral and shameful.

    • Ian Paul December 7, 2015 at 1:30 pm #

      I find it amazing that no-one seems concerned about the sheer devastation—which will increase the number of refugees

  2. David Shepherd December 7, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    Ian,

    I share your sadness at the fact that this show of military might doesn’t even begin to measure up to what is required to prosecute a just war.

    The bombing campaign simply feeds a neo-imperialist fantasy of routing enemy ‘savages’ from the skies and then ‘civilising’ them by carving up their native lands after negotiation with and arming of West-friendly puppet despots.

    The problem for the West is that its military power no longer guarantees political ascendancy in the Middle East, especially when the threat of becoming bomb fodder is interpreted by jihadists as a call to martyrdom in defence of territory held sacred by Muslims.

    • Ian Paul December 7, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

      Why doesn’t this register with our politicians…?

  3. James Byron December 7, 2015 at 2:33 pm #

    Ian, there’s a difference between opposing specific tactics, and opposing an armed strategy against ISIS.

    The article you linked deals mainly with Russian airstrikes (there’s mention of France), and isn’t an argument against all bombing, just the reckless bombing of targets in civilian areas. Are you arguing that air support should be denied to the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga? If not, you accept airstrikes in principle, and we disagree only on the targets.

    Daesh can’t be threatened or reasoned with. They must be defeated by force of arms, and airstrikes hasten that defeat. As with avoiding population centers, it’s possible to object to the widespread bombing of ISIS supply lines without challenging that underlying reality.

    If fighting Daesh isn’t a Just War, nothing is, and the category should be retired forthwith.

  4. Blair December 7, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

    Hi Ian,

    From pedantry corner….: “(For those concerned with such things, bellum is second declension neuter, so the accusative with ad is still bellum whilst the dative with in is bello.)” If memory serves, in Latin, ‘in’ meaning in or on takes the ablative, while it takes the accusative when used to mean into….?

    Rather less trivially, have you or anybody else seen this in the ‘Guardian’ today? http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/07/leaked-isis-document-reveals-plan-building-state-syria

    in friendship, Blair

    • Christine Quinn-Jones December 8, 2015 at 8:30 am #

      I have just read this article. It seems to me that, if this document is authentic, it strengthens the case for negotiating rather than bombing.
      Thank you for taking such a firm stand in this post, Ian.

  5. Chris Goswami December 7, 2015 at 5:59 pm #

    Just war theory is indeed a helpful way of analysing what we are doing here. I fear that the emotive pressure to “respond in some way and quickly” has far outweighed our ability to think this through. We won’t defeat an ideology by dropping bombs on it.

  6. John Grayston December 8, 2015 at 5:52 pm #

    Possibly Just War theory is fine for theologians, ethicists and philosophers, but has little relevance for politicians who are motivated by other considerations; or am I too cynical?

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