Saturday, 28 November 2015

Syria and the Just War Tradition - A Response to Jeremy Corbyn

This weekend, we British citizens once again face the sombre and indeed terrifying prospect of our government taking us into a war with ill-defined aims, a diffuse target, no clear international mandate, and a lack of any clear strategy. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee issued a document posing a number of questions to Prime Minister David Cameron about the legality and viability of a bombing campaign against Syria and he has published his response. Both of these documents can be downloaded here.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has expressed his opposition to going to war, and this has divided the Labour Party. The British media - including The Guardian - are reporting this in a way which reflects high degrees of prejudice against Corbyn, revealing how far the zeitgeist in this country is now infected by neo-liberalism. The Momentum Network is worth joining for those who want to support Corbyn through working for grassroots transformation of British politics and policies.

Corbyn has sent an email to Labour Party members asking for their views with regard to next week's parliamentary vote on a bombing campaign against ISIS. Here is his email and my public response. I have sent him a shorter response and a link to this blog:


On 27/11/2015 20:16, "Jeremy Corbyn" wrote:


On Thursday David Cameron set out his case in the House of Commons for a UK bombing campaign in Syria.

We have all been horrified by the despicable attacks in Paris and are determined to see ISIS defeated.

The issue now is whether what the Prime Minister is proposing strengthens, or undermines, our national security.

I put a series of questions in response to the Prime Minister's statement, raising concerns about his case that are on the minds of many in the country. You can read my response here.

There could not be a more important matter than whether British forces are sent to war.

As early as next week, MPs could be asked to vote on extending UK bombing to Syria.

I do not believe that the Prime Minister made a convincing case that British air strikes on Syria would strengthen our national security or reduce the threat from ISIS.

When I was elected I said I wanted Labour to become a more inclusive and democratic party.

So I am writing to consult you on what you think Britain should do. Should Parliament vote to authorise the bombing of Syria?

Let me know your views, if you are able to, by the start of next week:


Jeremy Corbyn MP
Leader of the Labour Party

Response from Tina Beattie:

Dear Jeremy Corbyn,

I am profoundly grateful to you for this democratic exercise in consultation – thank you. I fully support your stance in opposing the proposed bombing campaign, and I agree with all the points you make in your response to the Prime Minister. Whatever your own MPs say, I think you speak for a significant minority, and perhaps the majority, of the British people.

To go to war with ISIS is in my view not to resolve the problem but to exacerbate it, because it dignifies a mob of brutal and savage murderers with a heroic veneer and it implicitly recognises ISIS as a state. Mark Juergensmeyer argues persuasively that ISIS is losing support and losing territory, and that the Paris attacks were intended to provoke a reaction from the West: 'ISIS is desperate. It needs a victory, a vivid show of force to bolster the morale of its supporters, attract new volunteers, and with luck, intimidate its foes.' American political commentator Sonali Kolhatkar comes to a similar conclusion.

While I personally believe that war is rarely if ever a solution to violence, I accept that the resort to war is sometimes legitimate under international law. As citizens we therefore have a duty to participate in debates about the legitimacy of our politicians taking our country to war, whatever our personal beliefs. In such situations, I believe that the just war criteria should be applied, as a rule of thumb against which to measure the decision to go to war and the conduct of war. While it is questionable whether war ever conforms to these criteria, they are the only enduring tradition we have for judging and containing acts of war. I have taken the following summary from the BBC website and posted my arguments in italics, though there is also a very interesting discussion on a Catholic website about American involvement in bombing Syria, on the basis of Thomas Aquinas’s just war theory:

What is a Just War?

Six conditions must be satisfied for a war to be considered just:
  • The war must be for a just cause.
The elimination of ISIS (Daesh) is a just cause only if it is a clear act of self-defence and seeks to bring about a greater peace than that which prevailed before going to war. In this situation, there is a high risk that a bombing campaign will result in greater acts of terror and violence against western targets, while exacerbating the humanitarian crisis caused by growing instability in the Middle East.
  • The war must be lawfully declared by a lawful authority.
The UN Security Council has not issued a clear mandate for war, nor is there evidence of support for such action in the international community.
  • The intention behind the war must be good.
The intention is not and cannot be clear because of the immensely complex and fluid situation in Syria. There is no clearly defined opposition capable of governing the country, and Syria is a sovereign state with a government in power. The removal of President Assad is not in itself part of the declared intention of going to war, and indeed to make it such an intention would raise significant questions of legality and sovereignty, not to mention inflaming tensions between Russia and the West with a real risk of escalation. We should remember how, in the Iraq War of 2003, the justification of self-defence against non-existent weapons of mass destruction was blurred and the removal of Saddam Hussein was later hailed as a sign of success by Tony Blair, even though at the time of going to war he repeatedly denied to Parliament that regime change was one of the aims.
  • All other ways of resolving the problem should have been tried first.
As you make clear, stopping the flow of arms and oil revenue to ISIS should be a top priority. Also, while the removal of ISIS in Syria would be a real humanitarian accomplishment, it is not clear that this would resolve the problem of acts of violence and terrorism inspired by its ideas. Several of the Paris attackers were French nationals. ISIS is as much about an idea as it is about a territorial caliphate. One does not destroy ideas with bombs but with better ideas. Every endeavour should be made to discredit IS and to provide young alienated Muslims with good reasons for supporting liberal democracy as the best form of government. To put the vast money invested in a bombing campaign into better social welfare systems and education would be a much better long-term aim with regard to restoring stability and democratic participation in western states by those increasingly marginalised and vulnerable to radicalisation because of exclusion, unemployment and poverty. At the same time, a more effective humanitarian response to the refugee crisis is vital.
  • There must be a reasonable chance of success.
This is related to the intention behind going to war. What would constitute success, and what kind of time-frame are we talking about? If, as in the case of Iraq, the war resulted in failure – increasing destabilisation in the region and fuelling extremism – how would those responsible for taking Britain to war in spite of widespread opposition and doubt be held accountable? This question is particularly pointed given that we are once again being asked to support our country going to war when we are still waiting for publication of the Chilcot Report. As long as leaders like Tony Blair can, with impunity and with the support of Parliament, take Britain into devastating wars without being held accountable, the public is justified in feeling deep mistrust about the judgement of our elected politicians over such issues.
  • The means used must be in proportion to the end that the war seeks to achieve.
As you point out, a bombing campaign cannot resolve the problem of ISIS without the support of ground troops. The diffusion of ISIS among the Syrian population means that there will be a very high attrition rate among ordinary people – and please let’s not use the obscene expression ‘collateral damage’. ISIS is unlikely to cluster in clearly identifiable targets for bombing. We have already seen the use of so-called ‘human shields’ in such situations, and ISIS will undoubtedly ensure that potential target areas such as Raqqa are populated by civilians, including children.

How should a Just War be fought?

A war that starts as a Just War may stop being a Just War if the means used to wage it are inappropriate.
  • Innocent people and non-combatants should not be harmed.
See above. ISIS will use civilian populations to maximise the number of non-combatant deaths. There is considerable evidence that the current US bombing campaign in Iraq has resulted in many more civilian casualties than has been acknowledged by the Pentagon. If war goes ahead, you should ensure complete transparency with regard to civilian casualties, avoid the term ‘collateral damage’, and insist that the government publishes reliable estimates of the numbers killed – both combatants and civilians. Current policy does not require this, so how is it possible to hold the government accountable for civilian deaths?
  • Only appropriate force should be used. This applies to both the sort of force, and how much force is used.
Targeted bombing campaigns are far less accurate than claimed. In addition to high levels of civilian deaths, they are hugely expensive, generate vast profits for the arms industry, and contribute significantly to environmental degradation. All this raises questions about how appropriate they are in terms of the use of force, particularly in view of the fact that success in eliminating ISIS is highly improbable without the supporting use of ground troops.
  • Internationally agreed conventions regulating war must be obeyed.
The high risk of civilian casualties, the lack of any clearly defined territory or internationally recognised state as a target, and the use of drones for the purposes of summary execution of suspected extremists, all amount to violations of internationally agreed conventions regulating war.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and thank you for giving a voice back to the ordinary people of this country.

Best wishes,
Tina Beattie

Tina Beattie
Professor of Catholic Studies
Director, The Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing (DSRC),
Digby Stuart College
University of Roehampton
Roehampton Lane
London SW15 5PH