The Syrian Conflict: The Difference Between Peace and Justice

By: Lauren Prudente, Columnist

Photo Credit: The Independent (via US Navy)

The current United States strategy in Syria is to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but that cannot happen until the Syrian Civil War ends and the country is unified. The current US strategy is not equipped for ending the civil war due to its focus on the terrorist group. The violence must end, but the Syrian people will only have either peace or justice. The administration has vacillated between the just option of ousting President Bashar al-Assad and the option of using him to achieve a quicker peace.

Setting the United States’ Strategic Goals in Syria

The Syrian Civil War is the deadliest conflict in the 21st century and has left a void where the terrorist organization, ISIS, is able to operate and flourish. The civil war is complicated—multiple players and differing agendas in the region create a knotty and convoluted operating environment for US forces. This is why it is key for the civil war to end and the country to be unified before the United States can make strides in its fight against ISIS.

The Trump Administration has equivocated on what a unified Syria would look like. Earlier this month, the President stated that it would be “silly” if the United States tried to oust President Bashar al-Assad.[i] This became even more contentious after Assad’s April 4th chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.[ii] After the attack, the President stated that he had changed his mind toward the Assad regime and three days later launched a retaliatory strike against the Syrian air base that assisted in conducting the chemical attack.[iii]

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated in a press briefing that the missile strike on the Syrian air base was not related to the military campaign to defeat ISIS.[iv] These missile attacks, although cathartic to see after the killing of innocent civilians, were not in line with the United States’ strategic aims in the region. If a military action is not a means for achieving a strategic goal then it is wasteful. The United States wants to ensure that bad actors around the world do not commit acts that are seen as morally reprehensible. But in the case of Syria, US policymakers need to be cognizant of how actions in search of justice may get in the way of its primary strategic goal, to defeat ISIS.

Assad violated the principles of Just War with his use of chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas. However, there is a balance between peace and justice. In her book, Just Peace: How Wars Should End, Mona Fixdal explains that there are situations where the most important goal is to end the violence rather than to seek justice.

Striking the Balance Between Peace and Justice

If the United States’ strategic goal in the region is to defeat ISIS, an end to violence simply to unify Syria may be a desired option for policymakers. Acquiring a peaceful resolution will most easily come at the negotiation table. This includes the continuation of the Assad regime and the absence of justice. This would end the violence quickly, with limited US military resources, and allow the United States to focus its efforts on ISIS.

There are some options to bring about a just resolution. The first option could also happen at the negotiation table, and it would most likely include the United States and Russia negotiating a bilateral agreement that would result in the Russians pulling their support from the Assad regime. However, this is highly unlikely.

The second option for a just ending is for US policymakers to shift their strategic priorities in the region and commit the use of ground forces in Syria. A decisive military victory over an aggressor is often the easiest way to bring about justice. However, this option would be costly in terms of both American lives and defense resources.

Any ethically acceptable end to a violent conflict must strike a balance between peace and justice. For the United States strategy in Syria, this is incredibly complicated, but necessary, in order to achieve the ultimate strategic goal of defeating ISIS. The United States must make a decision in Syria to either support or overthrow the Assad regime, while keeping in mind its own interests in the region.

[i] Mark Landler, David E. Sanger and Michael D. Shear, “Trump’s View of Syria and Assad Altered After ‘Unacceptable’ Chemical Attack,” The New York Times, April 5, 2017, accessed April 25, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/world/middleeast/king-abdullah-jordan-trump.html.

[ii] Anne Bernard and Michael R. Gordon, “Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria, US Blames Assad,” The New York Times, April 4, 2017, accessed April 25, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/04/world/middleeast/syria-gas-attack.html.

[iii] Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “U.S. strikes Syrian military airfield in first direct assault on Bashar al-Assad’s government,” The Washington Post, April 7, 2017, accessed April 25, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-weighing-military-options-following-chemical-weapons-attack-in-syria/2017/04/06/0c59603a-1ae8-11e7-9887-1a5314b56a08_story.html.

[iv] Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor, “Mattis: Defeating Islamic State still top US priority,” The Associated Press, April 11, 2017, accessed on April 25, 2017 https://www.apnews.com/6eac1ca07eb1490d8f576a5fd31bd7db/Mattis:-Defeating-Islamic-State-still-top-US-priority.

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