Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Sacrifice of Innocents: There is no Just Case for Syrian Intervention – Yet

Rob Joustra


By Rob Joustra

An earlier version of this article was originally published on January 27 at

The Syrian army killed dozens of people during the sixth day of its crackdown in the city of Homs, reported activists on Thursday. The United Nations estimates that at least 5,400 people have been massacred by the Assad-regime in the last 10 months. Backstopping this criminal tyranny is Damascus’ rejection of the Arab peace plan and, more significantly, China and Russia’s veto at the U.N. Security Council to protect Syria.

And still, though it seems a callous and brutish thing to say, there is no just case for intervention in Syria – yet. Hope lies in the unification and recognition of a fractious Syrian resistance.

A just intervention, or a just war, is an ancient inheritance of Christian political thought, from Augustine, through Aquinas and forward. Christians have always struggled with the twin moral call of charity balanced by the realisms of their day: what can practically be achieved, with limited resources, in often tragic circumstances. Just war is a way of faithfully calculating a terrible process of global triage. And just war demands, a la jus ad bellum, that the justness of an intervention, of any military action, be judged not merely on moral outrage, right and true as that outrage may be, but on the probability of success and the exercise of prudent proportionality. Justice can never be predicated on short term sentimentality. It must have a long game.

The long game in Syria looks bad, maybe worse, after intervention than before. Parallels abound between Libya and Syria, but Syria is not Libya. Syrian opposition is divided and weak. Unlike the Transitional National Council in Libya, which gained fast international recognition, the Syrian National Council (SNC) took seven months to form and has received almost no recognition. The fracture is endemic in mixed calls from the SNC regarding Western intervention, first in favor, then denounced, then called for again. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed resistance, has on its own terms called for a western campaign. It is not the only armed force. Scores of rebel brigades, not beholden to either the FSA or the SNC, struggle on in the urban jungle of Syrian resistance.

Worse: according to Council on Foreign Relation’s Ed Husain at, a full 55 percent of Syrians still support President Bashir al-Assad. They prefer his promise of security over the untried opposition’s offer of blood-soaked democracy. Iraqi ex-pats and refugees who flooded Syria after post-Saddam Iraq have enough of those stories to share.

There is no front line between opposition and Assad forces that can be separated by air power, no armored columns driving along empty desert roads, to be targeted by the West’s deadly drones. Syria’s killing fields are dense urban environments, nested in a region with extremely high probability for spillover, into Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. Syria’s staunchest ally, Iran, is in its own ill-fated game of brinkmanship with global powers over its nuclear program.

A no-fly zone, or any exercise of air power, would mean enormous collateral damage, in both civilian lives and infrastructure. Syria’s military generally have not defected en masse like Libya’s. And if, from the ashes of a Syrian intervention, Assad were to be overthrown, there is very little enthusiasm today that one of the many competing factions could practically dominate. More likely, fringe groups currently allied with the regime would seize control of convenient strongholds, and Syria would be gripped in a civil war, becoming a harbor for Hezbollah, the Kurdistan Workers Party, Iraqi pro-Iranian forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, agents of which are already embedded with Assad’s feared Fourth Armored Division. Syria would become yet another proxy-war zone.

“Damascus has scandalized every Potemkin effort at reform or negotiation,” says Michael Weiss in Foreign Affairs. Assad will find no peace in the international system, but 23 million Syrians still might. For that to happen, before a just war or responsibilities to protect can be exercised, a galvanized Syrian opposition must take form. A post-Assad future is possible if the international community, especially the Security Council, the Arab League and the people of Syria work to form a beachhead of goodwill for a united, globally recognized resistance.

Military intervention today appeals to the soul, but not to the senses. This doesn’t mean ignoring a slaughter, but it does mean working prudently, multi-laterally and – especially – indigenously to support, not manufacture, a united cause of Syrian freedom.

—Robert Joustra is the Editor of Cardus Policy in Public and a lecturer in international relations at Redeemer University College.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”