The Theology of Bombing ISIS in Syria

Prime Minister David Cameron will ask the Commons tomorrow to back military action on Syria.Reuters

The British media seem to be more interested in what the effect of bombing ISIS in Syria will have on Jeremy Corbyn's career, than on what impact it will actually have on the whole messed up situation in the Middle East. Indeed there is a concern that our politicians seem more interested in gestures and perceptions, rather than the complexities and realities of what is going on. The Christian Church, sometimes as a tool of the State, has far too often gone along with whatever the prevailing zeitgeist seems to be. Some think that we should have nothing to say on this issue and should just stick to theology. But is there a theology of bombing?

Let's look at this from the perspective of what is called Just War Theory. Developed largely by Augustine and then later Aquinas, it lays out the basic principles that should inform a nation's decision to go to war.

The important thing about Just War Theory is that it is intended to prevent wars, rather than encourage them. War is always to be a last resort. It is always an evil and can only be waged if the alternative would be a greater evil. Just War Theory is based on two basic areas both summarised in Latin phrases. Jus ad bellum is about the conditions where military force is justified. Jus in bello is about the most ethical way to conduct a war.

Although the working out of this is complex, the conditions for a just war are simply laid out:

  1. It must be fought by a legally-recognised authority. Government, not private individuals or corporations.
  2. The cause of the war must be just.
  3. There must be an intention to establish good or restrain evil.
  4. There must be a reasonable chance of success.
  5. The war must be a last resort.
  6. Only sufficient force must be used and civilians must not be involved.

Now, let's look at what the British government is proposing. Two years ago there was a proposal to bomb the Syrian Assad government that was rejected by the House of Commons. Now we are proposing to bomb one group that is fighting the Assad government - ISIS. Why the change? Because after the Paris atrocities it is recognised that there is a danger to the United Kingdom from Islamist terrorists who come from ISIS. Therefore we need to bomb Raqqa, a city the size of Aberdeen, in order to defend Britain. To my mind it is clear that the first three reasons for engaging in a just war are fulfilled by this. But what about the last three?

A Reasonable Chance of Success

If success means destroying the 'State' of Islamic State, then the chances of success are very high. The trouble is that, as we keep being reminded by our own government, there is no such thing as Islamic State. It is Daesh, a terrorist group. The question then becomes, will bombing Raqqa or other areas of Syria prevent, restrain or remove the causes of terrorism? And the answer almost certainly is no. American, Jordanian, Russian, French and Syrian jets have already dropped tens of thousands of bombs. Has that decreased the threat of terrorism? Do our previous campaigns in the Middle East not have anything to tell us? If Islamism is an ideology which sees the West as an oppressive anti-Islamic force, will dropping bombs decrease or increase that perception? How does bombing a small Syrian city protect London, Birmingham and Glasgow from terrorist violence? If we are, in the words of David Cameron, to "hit them in their heartlands right now", should we not be bombing Brussels, rather than Raqqa? It is a ridiculous 'logic', but terrorists are far more likely to come from Molenbeek (the area of Brussels where the Paris attacks were planned) than Raqqa. Brussels has a 25 per cent Muslim population, 98 per cent of whom are Sunni Muslims, the very group who make up the basis of ISIS.

The War must be a Last Resort 

The impression given by the British government is that this is a first response, rather than a last resort. Furthermore it seems to be more about preserving Britain's place in the world pecking order and showing our 'solidarity' with the French, than it is about protecting our own nation. Britain dropping a few more bombs on Syria is not really about defeating ISIS. It is about Britain's reputation. As the Prime Minister egotistically observed "the world is looking at us". A war is not 'just' because it is waged in order to show that a nation still has it, or as a personal ego trip for political leaders.

Only Sufficient Force must be used and civilians must not be involved 

This doctrine has been changed to 'only sufficient force must be used and British troops must not be involved'. The trouble is that while we can boast about 'minimal civilian casualties' from direct hits, we cannot say that about the damage done to the communities involved in the war. Dropping bombs and using drones certainly minimises the casualties to British troops, but whether it reduces the number of civilian causalities on the ground, or stops the flow of refugees, is another question. The result of our failed intervention in Iraq has been a million dead and the establishment of ISIS. The result of our bombing in Libya has been a failed state and a flood of refugees across the Mediterranean. Why would we expect the results to be any different this time?

The Catholic Catechism of 1992 in discussing just war theory states: "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated". Given that there are only 2,000 of the 20,000 ISIS fighters left in Raqqa and that they just merge amongst the civilian population, it is extremely unlikely that they can be killed without civilians being harmed. Rather than preventing terrorism, bombing is likely to increase it. Every dead child's picture, tweeted all over the Sunni world, is going to be a far more effective recruiting sergeant for ISIS, than any radical Mullah could be. David Cameron declared in the House of Commons that "the presence of Western boots on the ground would be counter-productive". Perhaps the House of Commons should recognise that the presence of Western bombs would also be counter-productive?

One side aspect of this sideshow is the way that Britain's political class has reacted. Politicians love to be seen doing 'something' and there is an element of excitement in thinking that we are going to war. Christians, even if we are not pacifists, need to reject that temptation. Jeremy Corbyn has been widely mocked as weak and non-statesmanlike for sticking to his principles and for stating what many British citizens think. However instead of the narrative being that he is the lunatic left-winger who just does not understand, perhaps it is the case that, in this instance, he has a far better understanding of just war theory and how it works than the other so-called 'statesmen'?

I recently read this quote about America from Os Guinness which is apposite to the UK in this situation. As we head towards a Christmas celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace, with our government holding yet another debate on going to war, we would do well to reflect upon this:

"It will not do to equate America and freedom and then to assume that any and all American policies are automatically justified in the name of freedom. It will not do for Americans to rehearse their good intentions, for in the age of side effects, unintended consequences, and unknown aftermaths, the best intentions may produce the worst of results and pave the road to another man-made hell" - Os Guinness, A Free People's Suicide.

David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee.