Syrians in the capital of Damascus protest on April 14 against U.S.-led air strikes.Reuters / Omar Sanadiki

What If There Is No Ethical Way to Act in Syria Now?

Last week, Sigal Samuel spoke with a variety of philosophers and ethicists about America’s moral responsibility in Syria. Many of them were at a loss.


The philosophers dropping in for comments throughout Sigal Samuel’s piece left me utterly baffled and frustrated. I have no doubts of their sincerity, let alone any good intentions. However, first and foremost, I’d like to ask each whether they understand the sheer luxury, the privilege, they have in the ability to have the conversation in the first place. The privilege, the freedom (dubious, I know), to debate the merits of who dies and for what reasons.

Brian Barnes
Los Angeles, Calif.


And now, now will we go to war?
Is that what we were supposed to have done before?

Overthrow the man who was misbehaving?
Insist we be the ones to do the saving?
Remake the demolished country in our image?
… Did we learn any lessons from the last world-war scrimmage?

It’s a dangerous puzzle, too hot to touch
A Jenga game on fire—don’t remove too much—
A giant house of cards already burning
How can we play, when we’re getting worse at learning?

All options are bad: If we shout, “Off With His Head”
There’s still just a future filled with more dead

Is there any way to help without more blood on our hands?
Would Syria turn out better than Iraq? Afghanistan?
We can’t fix what we can’t understand
We can’t help ourselves, much less these foreign lands.

We’ve created hellscapes before from too-easy solutions
Brain-damaged our soldiers, betrayed our institutions
Laid waste to lands most of us never see
They say we’re all in this together, so we’re all guilty.

We invaded Iraq when I was 17
Assuring ourselves we knew what that would mean.
We all know now that didn’t go as planned,
Can they blame us for not wanting to try again?

Yes, they can and they do and hell they may be right for all I know.
But do they really still want us running the show?
Led by this coward who hides in his tower,
Pointing fingers at others at ungodly hours?

(He’s selfish and ignorant and a bit of a fascist,
But the bar’s pretty low now, at least he’s not gassing us!)

Some people voted for him, despite all the lying,
Thinking he’d avoid war, telling themselves they were trying.
But our new NSA guy already knows how to love the bomb
And now they too will get dragged along

Now we can’t hear ourselves think above all the noise and
If we stay or if we go, Assad’s still got that poison
The children will still choke on sarin gas and vomit

“Don’t worry, we’ll set our worst man on it!”

The Middle East Jenga tower keeps growing higher,
It’s our turn to play but it’s now all on fire.
And it is definitely going to fall,
Or burn,
Or both,
Or something.

I’m afraid we’re out of water,
All the buckets we can find seem filled with kerosene.

What can we do? Run around screaming?
Fall to our knees crying, we didn’t light it?
None of the manuals say how to right it.

(I think we’re busy burning books at home anyway.)

Fuck it, it’s too hard to solve and I want to stop playing,
Minimize the guilt that I’ve had no option of escaping.
Damned if we do, damned when we don’t,
Warmongers who will or heartless who won’t.

Lord, send a lightning bolt! Spare us the decision!
(We need help with the morality, not the precision.)

Forgive me for not thinking war will solve this
It seems nothing we can do can absolve us
It’s all already our fault, according to this thesis
Perhaps in 20 years we can help pick up the pieces

I see no way of helping besides running away

—and taking some of them with us

Can we just please,

For the love of God,

Accept some more refugees?

Emily C. Susko
Santa Cruz, Calif.


One of the considerations in “just-war” or “moral war” theory is that the war or intervention must be effective, or must have at least a reasonable likelihood of being effective, and a reasonable likelihood of doing more good than harm. So if we’re going with moral war theory, or just as a pragmatic matter, we need to consider (1) will our intervention (whatever it is) have the desired effect?, (2) will it have a counterproductive effect?, (3) will it have little or no effect?

Our last hand-slapping attack on Syria appears to have had no effect on the course of the Syrian disaster. It may have been morally justified, but ineffective. Why should we think another hand-slapping will?

What strategy, if any, by any foreign power could have prevented, or resolved, America’s own Civil War?

The real question here is: What strategy, if any, by the US, the UN, or any other foreign power, can resolve the Syrian Civil War?

Not everything is fixable.

Ray Kraft


Yes, humanitarian intervention in Syria is warranted. But then comes the question: What would this intervention be? We can find the answer to this question in a document adopted by the UN in 2005. In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) published a report called The Responsibility to Protect, which was meant to be a response to the atrocities and crimes against humanity committed at the end of the 20th century. This report later became known as R2P, and became a political commitment signed by all the member states of the United Nations, in 2005.

Article 138 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document states: “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The following paragraph, Article 139, states:

The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from [these crimes].

We can see that, according to Article 139, states are not only permitted to intervene in cases of crimes against humanity, but in fact, have the duty to intervene. Furthermore, the actions of this intervention should be decided on a “case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate.” And, this should be done if and only if peaceful means are “inadequate.” As national authorities have proven to fail the Syrian population, and even hurt them, the final requirement of Article 139 has been fulfilled in the case of Syria, regardless of the country intervening in the war.

Ultimately, the answer of what the U.S. (or any other country) should do, in terms of intervention, is thus up to the country and its strategists. Countries like the U.S., who are member states of the UN and have signed on to R2P, do have a moral obligation to intervene in the case of Syria, at least in such a way that will protect civilians from further harm. But, as stated in R2P and proven by history, it is crucial that interventions be planned carefully, in order to be tailored to the case in question. Perhaps there is no “one right way” to perform a humanitarian intervention, but the complexity and multiple factors involved in staging one mean that while there is much room for error, there is also much room to create a proper intervention. The key, then, is to err on the side of caution and care—for if we are to step into a quagmire, we should be careful not to lean too deep into what may become quicksand.

Maya Camargo Vemuri
Washington, D.C.


This article, and the people interviewed, seem to lack what a friend of mine used to call “primary thinking.”

The first step is to understand your primary goal. Your real goal. (You only get one primary goal.) Is it to stand up to Assad, or is to stop the killing? The surest way to stop the killing is to work with Assad, to do what we can to remove the threat he feels to his power, his status, his whatever; make him feel safe and secure, rather than attacked. Now, most would say that option is off the table. It’s rewarding bad/evil behavior. So then, we go back to the other goal: punish Assad for bad/evil behavior. But again, it seems that will only make the killing worse.

What’s the way out? To start, we need to ask deeper questions; we need to examine our assumptions and where they come from. For example, why do we feel it’s important to punish bad behavior, when the consequences will not stop the killing, but exacerbate it? Why is it so hard to give up on the “punishment” paradigm when it clearly is not helpful? Probably because we’ve been conditioned to believe that punishing evil is necessary to ensure our survival. But Syria—and every other conflict on the planet right now—requires that we rethink what is required for survival because everything we are doing under the “punishment” paradigm is only making matters worse. (If it worked, the Middle East should be a paradise by now.)

When we take “punishment” off the table, we have new options. These options will address the short-term need, and quite possibly set the conditions over the long term for peaceful lasting change to occur. Which means that giving ourselves a long enough time horizon in which to accurately judge the results of our actions is important.

Kern Beare
Mountain View, Calif.

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