On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, there must be “international consequences.” The president is right. But what should those consequences be?
The issue here, again, is one that we have not decided how to deal with: terrorism. The definition of terrorism is deliberate and brutal attacks upon innocent people — whether by individuals, groups, or heads of state. By that definition, Assad is a terrorist. And terrorists who possess weapons of mass destruction and demonstrate their willingness to use them are most dangerous ones. But how should we respond?
I am in in the U.K., where political leaders last night backed off the decision  to make immediate “military strikes” while the U.S. and other nations are considering them. The feeling here is that international and legal legitimacy need to be established first, that the U.N. inspectors should finish their examinations in Syria before any actions are taken, and that all other means of response should be fully explored first. These are good decisions.
Why is there such public “war fatigue” in the U.K. and the U.S. in light of Iraq and Afghanistan — and why is that creating reluctance to more military action? Because wars and military solutions have FAILED in response to terrorism — failed to achieve what they were purported to do.
Military responses have also taken mass numbers of innocent lives and have had so many unintended consequences. That very same thing could happen in Syria. In response to the terrorism of taking innocent lives, we could end up taking so many more innocent lives, destabilizing the world even further, and even recruiting more angry people for terrorism.
Christians should be guided by the gospel of peacemaking and conflict resolution that reduces the violence of our world. And it is a long-held Christian principle that governments and citizens are obliged to work for the avoidance of war, which, even under just war theories, must only be a last resort.
It’s natural to feel moral outrage, and there is no doubt that the Assad regime is responsible for more than 100,000 civilian deaths. But a moral compass must guide our moral outrage.
Christians, both who identify as pacifists and those who subscribe to a just war theory, can agree that rigorous criteria and conditions must be applied before there is any decision for military intervention. As part of that process, we must first ask if military strikes are a last resort. Have we exhausted peaceful, multilateral solutions to the conflict? Will military intervention have a reasonable chance of success, and how would we define that success? And does military intervention comply with international and U.S. law.
We also need to consider the unintended consequences of U.S. military action in Syria both at home and abroad. Our involvement could add fuel to the fires of violence that are already consuming the region. It could exacerbate anti-American hatred and produce new recruits for terror attacks against the United States and our allies. Military action could also increase refugee displacement, further risking regional destabilization.
It is time to go much deeper, and this tragic situation has given us that opportunity. Can a head of state be proven guilty of committing an act of terrorism against innocent people? How might that galvanize and unite international opinion against him and in defense of the Syrian people who are suffering so much? Could new levels of isolation and rejection be used to surround him with united international pressure to weaken his regime? And if the use of force is necessary as part of that pressure, how can we begin to move away from the unintended consequences of war to a new and focused strategy of policing the world of its terrorist threats?
Old military solutions have clearly failed. It’s time to find a better and more successful way.