Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is widely thought to have used chemical weapons in an alleged attack on Syrian rebels on April 7. If guilty, the act would be yet another criminal act in a long line of war crimes alleged against him. President Trump promised to strike Syria with “nice and new and ‘neat’” missiles and he, with support from France and the United Kingdom, made good his promise on April 14. The attacks targeted chemical weapons storage facilities and research sites, and they were made in order to hamper Assad’s ability to resort to future chemical attacks. Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zosypkin, warned that any missiles fired at Syria would be shot down, but the regime’s backers did not succeed in stopping any allied missiles. Russia also claimed that it would consider any such attack as an act of war. But while the Kremlin has vigorously protested the strikes, it has not made good the threat. Iran vows to back Syria against the United States and its allies.
Even if we give Assad the benefit of doubt concerning a just cause against rebels, his repeated uses of chemical weapons are indiscriminate in nature and result in injuries and deaths for many innocent civilians. Such actions are immoral and illegal. Those troubled by Assad’s crimes may be equally troubled about the potential financial costs and political consequences of military operations against Syria. In such circumstances, we may naturally wonder if it would not be better all around simply to get rid of Assad—make him the subject of a targeted killing, or as we used to say before international law frowned upon it, assassinate him.
Assassinating Assad with a discrete and discriminate weapon would certainly be the least expensive act of force against Syria. It would eliminate the person most responsible for the immoral, criminal acts and may deter any future leader of Syria from using chemical weapons. Even a failed attempt might make Assad rethink his tactics against rebels. Following the Christian just war tradition, could the assassination attempt be justified despite its illegal nature?
The cause is certainly a just one: a response to Assad’s many criminal acts against his own people as well as others. The intention would be to punish a war criminal and to seek a more law-abiding Syrian regime. Nothing has deterred Assad up to this point, so we may assume that other measures, even other military actions, have been tried and failed. Discrimination would have to be met. We cannot employ the overkill that Assad uses against rebels, even with conventional weapons. We could not, for instance, target Assad with a missile attack that would kill and injure hundreds of innocent civilians. That would be acting like Assad.
More problematic is whether there’s reasonable hope for success and proportion. Success here means not merely that we think we can kill him but that we are likely to end up with a more law-abiding Syrian regime. But the consequences of eliminating Assad are hard to calculate. We could end up with another Baathist hard-liner in power. Worse, we could create a level of disorder and chaos from which Islamic extremists might come to power.
The confusion of neighbor against neighbor that can engulf any country where the head of state is simply eliminated, particularly when rebellion is already rife as it is in Syria, can lead to an inordinate amount of violence. The certainty of a massive bloodletting during an attempted regime change, along with the uncertainty of the political outcome, led notable just war tradition defenders such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther to discourage all such efforts unless responsible people were willing, able and likely to take power quickly.
Given the concern for reasonable hope for success and proportion in just war tradition, even the proposed assassination of Hitler was morally problematic. German theologian and underground spy under the Hitler regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was once approached by Werner von Haeften, staff lieutenant in the Army High Command and a member of the Kreisau Circle, which took part in the various plots to assassinate Hitler. Armed with a pistol, von Haeften could approach Hitler, so he asked Bonhoeffer: “Shall I shoot? May I shoot?” Bonhoeffer’s opinion was important to von Haeften and to the entire Kreisau Circle because the common denominator among the plotters was a belief in Christian ethics. A majority of the group had originally adopted Luther’s view and opposed assassination because they thought it might do more harm than good. Only when they reasoned that the failure to eliminate Hitler meant the certain destruction of Germany did they begin to change their way of thinking. Bonhoeffer pointed out that Germany’s future was the main moral issue in the decision to assassinate Hitler. If the Nazis remained in power, the situation could become even worse. Hitler was known to restrain some of his party’s worst elements for reasons of sheer war-time expediency, a tendency that Bonhoeffer feared would not be matched by Hitler’s henchmen.
Germany’s future was uppermost in Bonhoeffer’s mind. The future of the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, should be uppermost in our mind when it comes to responding to Assad’s criminal actions. Unless we have good reasons to think that a more just and stable regime would take power in the wake of Assad’s assassination, we should not seek to eliminate him.
We have other moral concerns as well. Even if we can somehow dismiss from our minds the Iranian threat (when are they not threatening us?), we cannot so easily dismiss threats from the Kremlin. Assassinating Assad will almost certainly strain what is already a very strained relationship with our old Cold War enemy. Of course, we may ask whether the strain from eliminating Assad would be greater than the strain that resulted from launching Tomahawk missiles at Syrian airfields, but the answer is no. International law was not violated when we used limited military strikes against Syria last week. Russia protested and threatened, but it is unlikely to misbehave more than it already does. That may change if we attempt to assassinate Assad. Is a more law-abiding Syria worth a hot (or even lukewarm) war with Russia?
Darrell Cole is Professor of Ethics at Drew University. He writes regularly on the ethics of war and is the author of Just War and the Ethics of Espionage (to read a review by David Shedd, who served as acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, click here).
Photo Credit: Bashar al-Assad during his meeting with Vladimir Putin on October 20, 2015. Kremlin photo, via Wikimedia Commons.
For more articles about Christianity and espionage, be sure to read Darrell Cole’s print edition article on whether or not Christian spies can use sex in the line of duty, “Sex, Lies, and Spies.” Also from the print edition, Brian Auten uses the just war tradition to examine how the government should conduct intelligence and surveillance in “Just Intelligence, Just Surveillance, & the Least Intrusive Standard.” Keith Pavlischek’s book review of Gen. Michael Hayden’s Playing to the Edge, “Chalk Dust on Our Cleats,” also offers good insights about espionage.