Military action against Syria would not be just

By Tobias Winright
August 31, 2013

The videos and photos showing children suffering and dying in what appears to be a poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb shock the conscience and serve as just cause for taking military action.

However, other criteria of the 'just war' tradition must also be met for an intervention to be justified on those terms. Although none of the sides in this civil war appears to be respecting noncombatant immunity, the US and its allies would be expected to do so. Yet, much of the fighting is in urban areas, where avoiding civilian casualties would be extremely difficult, especially if attacks against the regime were carried out with cruise missiles and high-altitude bombers.

It also remains unclear whether a US strike against the Syrian military forces would escalate or mitigate tensions in the region, including with Iran and Russia. If just war is sometimes understood as the lesser of two evils, it is hard to fathom how so in the case of Syria. Similar questions arise concerning other just war criteria, including probability of success and last resort.

With a heavy heart for the children and other civilians who are suffering and dying in Syria, I sadly think that in the present miry situation we have an instance where just war theory responds with a “no” to military intervention. I have serious doubts about probability of success, proportionality, and discriminating force there.

Indeed, it seems very much like what H. Richard Niebuhr wrote about possible military intervention in the Sino-Japanese conflict in the early 1930s in his famous Christian Century essay, “The Grace of Doing Nothing”: "We are chafing at the bit, we are eager to do something constructive; but there is nothing constructive, it seems, that we can do.” For him, the problem was “that of a choice between various kinds of inactivity rather than of choice between action and inaction,” and in his view the way of inaction that believes that God is at work in all this, even though we humans can do nothing constructive in it, calls us to repentance.

While I agree on the need for repentance — the US and UK are not morally pure, especially when considering our history in the Middle East—I find it hard to trust that somehow God is at work in what is happening on the ground in Syria, and I am not convinced that there is nothing constructive to be done by anyone other than God. At the same time, I am not in agreement with H. Richard’s brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, who critically responded that taking action through the use of coercion, including possibly military force, is necessarily the alternative to inaction in this tragic world.

Of course, we Christians can and should pray. That is not inaction. On 25 August, after the recitation of the Angelus, Pope Francis called for peace in Syria, praying to Mary, Queen of Peace, to pray for us. He added, “From the bottom of my heart, I would like to express my closeness in prayer and solidarity with all the victims of this conflict, with all those who suffer, especially children….”. But I am not sure such “closeness” is enough for the suffering.

Maybe what needs to be done is seen in the example of Mother Teresa, who also invoked the Queen of Peace, in 1982 when she traveled to Beirut to rescue a group of disabled Muslim children from the fighting there after Israel had invaded Lebanon. Her presence momentarily disarmed the adversaries in a cease fire. I recall when my professor, Stanley Hauerwas, suggested during a lecture, prior to the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, that Pope John Paul II should similarly go to Iraq.

There is also the practice of nonviolent direct action, which includes interventionist accompaniment, such as what Witness for Peace did with thousands of unarmed volunteers placed themselves in harm’s way during the Contra war in Nicaragua during the 1980s. There are serious risks obviously involved, but any harm to such accompanying human shields would further undermine the cause of either the rebels or the regime. I wish someone would try something like this before resorting to military action in Syria.


(c) Tobias L. Winright is associate professor of theological studies at St Louis University, Missouri, and coauthor of After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice (Orbis 2010).

This article also appears in The Tablet (, the international Catholic weekly, on 31 August 2013, and is reproduced with grateful acknowledgement. See also 'A Just War 'No' to bombing Syria': by the same author.

Though Ekklesia stands by the tradition of principled Christian nonviolence and peacemaking, we recognise the importance of the 'just war' tradition for seeking to limit conflict.

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