From Civilizing Missions to Collateral Damage: Syria and the Rules of War

(Bob Simons/Wikimedia Commons)

While the U.S. Congress continues to debate plans to attack Syria, there’s still little consensus about the grounds on which military action can be justified or rejected. Supporters and opponents of intervention have rolled out a standard stock of historical analogies to support their positions: Rwanda for the liberal interventionists, Iraq for the skeptics, and Munich (of course) for the neo-con-ish hawks. There’s another, less well-known precedent to western intervention in the Middle East, though, that merits inclusion in the debate today: Syria’s 1925 revolt against French rule. The international legal controversy inspired by the brutal French response to this revolt has unsettling implications for how the humanitarian case for intervention is being framed today.

In terms of international law, the most straightforward case made in favor of intervention is that Syria must be held accountable for its alleged violation of statutes banning the use of chemical weapons. A shakier legal case is made on the so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) Syria’s civilian population: before British plans for a strike were defeated on August 29 in Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement claiming military action was justified in the face of “overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe.” Neither of these arguments is very convincing: it’s unclear whether Syria is, in fact, in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which outlaws the use of chemical weapons in inter-state warfare, but not in civil conflict. And R2P has, at best, a murky status in international law.

The international legal case against intervention isn’t much stronger: while prominent legal scholars have taken to the opinion pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post to argue that military action absent authorization from the UN Security Council would itself be illegal—and that breaking the law in order to uphold it doesn’t make much sense—others have pointed out that international legal prohibitions on aggressive war have never had much teeth, and that states rarely pay heed to the UN Charter when it’s not in their interests to do so. (The military actions against Iraq in 2003 and Serbia in 1999, after all, were both illegal.) Further violation of the charter would do little to weaken a legal principle that’s rarely taken seriously in the first place.

What international law says is irrelevant, from this perspective, and cases both for and against intervention should be made on moral or political, rather than legal, grounds. For most American hawks, on this view, what’s important is maintaining the credibility of “red lines” and deterring the further use of chemical weapons; for most American opponents of the war, it’s avoiding another prolonged U.S. war in the Middle East. The humanitarian case for war is inspired by a different set of priorities: only by violently removing Assad’s potential to deploy chemical weapons can the U.S. prevent the further suffering that their continued use will bring. But why are the proponents of humanitarian intervention so confident that a U.S. attack will not itself, either directly or indirectly, contribute further to the suffering of the Syrian civilian population? And why has so little public debate focused on the distinct possibility that an intervention could itself cause a humanitarian catastrophe?  There is a general reluctance to judge the effects of U.S. war-making by the same humanitarian criteria we apply to our enemies. Reflection on the history of international law, and on an incident from 1920s Syria, might shed light on the deep roots of this intuition that the way we fight can’t be held to the same standards as the way they do.


In the summer of 1925, a large revolt broke out in the French Syrian Mandate, a territory administered by France in conjunction with the League of Nations after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. The uprising began with the Druze in the semi-autonomous region of southern Syria, Jabal al-Druze. But given the unpopularity of French rule, it spread quickly throughout Syria and Lebanon and across sectarian lines. To their international humiliation, the French proved incapable of slowing its expansion, as major uprisings broke out in the cities of Hama and Homs (both centers of the civil war today). In October 1925, as fighting raged in and around Damascus, the French army responded with brutal force: burning villages suspected of harboring insurgents, publicly parading the corpses of slain Syrian fighters, and indiscriminately shelling civilian areas in Damascus and its outskirts, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 civilians. The opposition was finally defeated in the summer of 1927. But the 1925 bombardment of Damascus sparked an international controversy: did the direct targeting of civilian areas in and around Damascus violate the laws of war as they had been established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

On the face of it, there seemed to be a strong case against the French. International law banned attacks against undefended and unfortified areas and direct targeting of private residences, schools, hospitals, and places of religious worship. The French attack on civilian areas in Damascus was clearly intended to break the population’s morale, which, according to the leading American international lawyer Quincy Wright, qualified it as an act of terrorism: “As a normal military measure,” he wrote, “the bombardment of Damascus cannot be justified.”

Wright faced a serious difficulty, though, in making a standard international legal case against the French: the fact that their actions took place outside of Europe and against a non-Christian and non-European population (although Syrian Christians did fight alongside Muslims and Druze in the revolt). It was unclear whether Syrians, as a “savage” or “semi-savage” people, qualified for the protection of the laws of war. At the time, the bounds of international law were seen as limited to the “civilized” world—namely, Christian Europe and its settler societies in North and South America. (Two exceptions to this rule were Japan and Ottoman Turkey.) Non-Christian and non-European peoples were not trusted to understand or obey the rule of law; as such, they fell beyond its scope. The division of the world into civilized and uncivilized realms went beyond mere matters of doctrine: official legal guides that accompanied imperial armies into the colonial theater stipulated that intra-European rules of war did not apply in “wars with uncivilized States and tribes.” Africans, Native Americans, and “Asiatic” tribes were all taken to be insufficiently advanced to obey civilized conduct in warfare; they could be dealt with as brutally as necessary.

Wright’s case hinged on whether Ottoman Turkey’s ratification of the Hague Convention of 1899 entitled the occupants of Syria, as a territory formerly under Ottoman rule, to its protections. He conceded, though, that the failure of one party to observe civilized conduct in war allowed the other to commit otherwise illegal acts in response, and that this was a claim often made by Europeans to justify brutal conduct in colonial warfare. According to Wright’s respondents, the Syrians insurgents had disqualified themselves from the protection of the laws of war for exactly this reason: “When combatants and non-combatants are practically identical among a people, and savage and semi-savage peoples take advantage of this,” one wrote, “commanders must attack their problems in entirely different ways from those in which they proceed against Western peoples.” The Syrian rebels were “brigands” and brutal thugs, incapable of following civilized rules of western warfare. In facing them down, Wright’s respondent continued, the French should draw on lessons learned by the U.S. military in confronting the American Indians during westward expansion: “The long list of Indian wars…bear eloquent testimony…to the almost universal brutality of red-skinned fighters. With these, there can be little thought of international law.”

This distinction between those qualifying for civilized treatment in war and those who did not lay at the center of the imperial imagination: the Belgians in the Congo, the British and Germans in South Africa, the French in Southeast Asia and Africa, and the Americans in the Philippines—all made use of the most destructive instruments of warfare against civilian populations. It took Wright pages of elaborate legal reasoning to argue (ultimately, in vain) against the dominant view that, since the Syrians could not act decently in war, the killing of their civilians could not be considered a punishable offense.


Racial and civilizational hierarchies like these—used to justify the targeting of Syrian civilians in the 1920s—no longer exist in international law. After the Second World War and during the era of decolonization, European and American international lawyers celebrated the emergence of a “universal law” that embraced both the formerly colonized and the formerly imperial world. The rule of law was globalized. But even as the bounds of the western moral universe expanded, remnants of these older, hierarchical visions of international order continue to persist. We still justify recourse to arms in terms of the distinctions between “civilized” and “uncivilized” ways of war. There’s no argument for the moral equivalence of the direct targeting of civilians and unintentional death caused by aerial warfare, but there’s reason to be anxious about the American belief in the sanitized nature of the war it wages: it creates callousness to “collateral damage.” The United States no longer directly target civilians, but it largely forswears responsibility for the accidental deaths, often in great number, that it causes when it goes to war.

Good intentions provide moral cover for unintended consequences. Belief in the ability of American arms to target with nearly foolproof accuracy, in turn, assures that good intentions are realizable with minimal errors in practice. Taken together, these two assumptions often work to mute public discussion of what actually happens, on the ground, when bombs begin to fall. In the case of Syria, consideration of the intervention’s possible impact on the civilian population has been almost completely absent from official justifications for war and debates in the media about its merits and risks. A recent web article at the New Republic entitled “Here is What a U.S. Attack on Syria Would Look Like,” for example, did not include mention of the perspective of those who would see it from the ground and live through its aftermath.

There are several reasons why a U.S. attack could cause significant harm to civilian life in Syria: strikes will likely be concentrated in and around the heavily urban areas of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs; intelligence about the location of military targets and the civilian presence around them will be imperfect, given the likelihood the Syrian military has moved its munitions since an American strike became likely; and, as in Libya, “mission creep” is a distinct possibility during aerial bombardment, and prolonged engagement will cause further civilian damage. There are further reasons to be anxious about the indirect causalities an intervention could cause. Swinging the balance in favor of the opposition could lead to further atrocities by a desperate Assad regime. And the uptick in violence in Libya after the NATO bombardment in 2011, and the descent of the country into lawlessness, offers a cautionary tale for what could happen following an air campaign. If responding to human suffering is one of the primary goals of intervention, honest reflection on these possibilities should be at the center of debate. But it’s not. Nick Kristof’s list of “The Right Questions on Syria” in the New York Times last week did not include the simplest one: why should we be so confident that a U.S. strike will alleviate more suffering than it may itself cause, either directly or indirectly?

As America prepares for yet another war, its reluctance to ask hard questions about its culpability for the death of civilians speaks to a failure of the humanitarian imagination—an imagination exercised far less when it comes to American and European killing abroad than the violence caused by foreign despots. Perhaps more than ever, we are sensitive to distant suffering and to the atrocities committed by states and rulers across the globe. As we should be. But we are insensitive, to a fault, about what happens when we behold this suffering and insist we respond.


James R. Martin is a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard University.

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