The Catholic Case Against Military Intervention in Syria

As America waits for the vote on military action in Syria, it is important for Catholics to understand why we must oppose any measure of military action against the Syrian regime. It is easy to jump to an emotional conclusion based on the tragedies and atrocities committed by the Assad regime. A reported 1,429 men, women, and an estimated 426 children were killed in a chemical weapon attack on August 21st, believed to be ordered by the regime. Beyond the chemical weapon attack of the 21st, there have been allegations over the course of the Syrian conflict of the regime’s use of chemical weapons. The Assad regime has also shown disregard for the lives of civilians and used disproportionate force to deal with both armed and unarmed uprisings. From an emotional perspective, military action seems like a justifiable reaction to an authoritarian regime. However, as Catholics, we must approach armed conflict from the perspective of what it is: the destruction of human life.

It is because of the high price of armed conflict that the Church has laid out specific requirements under which war is justifiable. In this article, I will test the case for military intervention in Syria against the five requirements for action to constitute “just war.” My source evidence comes from reports by the United Nations Council on Human Rights and the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops. Additional evidence is provided by news reports.

For more background on the history of the conflict, click here for a comprehensive timeline from the BBC.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church establishes two similar sets of requirements for armed conflict that would be considered “just war.” The first set establishes “legitimate defense by military force,” and the second is “legitimate cause of armed resistance.” While there are slight differences between the two, both sets of conditions require that all stipulations be met for a legitimate cause to be established. The requirements are as follows:

Requirements for the Legitimate Defense by Military Force (CCC, 2309)

  1. The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  2. All other means of putting an end to [aggression] must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  3. There must be serious prospect of success;
  4. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

Requirements for the Legitimate Cause of Armed Resistance (CCC, 2243)

  1. There is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights;
  2. All other means of redress have been exhausted;
  3. Such resistance will not provoke worse disorders;
  4. There is a well-founded hope for success;
  5. It is impossible to foresee any better solution.

For more background on the Just-War Doctrine read this article from Catholic Answers.

To begin to test the Just-War Doctrine, we must use the appropriate set of criteria. The argument proposed by the Obama Administration to justify the use of military force against Syria  is that military force is in the interest of national defense. Therefore, we must test against the requirements for the legitimate defense by military force.

“The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

One of the evils or disorders which would qualify as “graver than the evil to be eliminated” would be the wider proliferation of war. Several Syrian allies have publicly stated that they are prepared to retaliate against the United States in the event of military intervention in Syria. Including Hezbollah, Iran, and most notably Russia, who has moved naval vessels into the region. The ramifications against the United States and the global community are unknown but could very easily result in the escalation of warfare in the region.

Beyond the hypothetical potential for the escalation of warfare, the very real consequence of U.S. military intervention is the shift of power between the rebels and the Syrian government. While it may be a logical leap for some to side with the rebels based on the government’s reported use of chemical weapons, there are few good guys with guns in this conflict. Any military action against the Assad regime will provide a strategic advantage for the rebel groups in Syria and, depending on the scope of military action undertaken by the U.S., could change the balance of power completely.

In a United Nations report on the Syrian conflict, the rebels were reported to be responsible for more “unlawful killings” than the government forces. The report notes that both sides are responsible for the perpetration of war crimes and that rebel forces are responsible for setting up Sharia courts and targeting Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities. Media reports indicate that rebel groups are responsible for the kidnapping and beheading of two Catholic Bishops and several other crimes committed against Christians.

The support of either the rebels or the regime in Syria represents a serious moral miscarriage and would make the United States an indirect party to war crimes. Military intervention by the U.S. in Syria would upset the balance of power and therefor contribute to the production of greater evils and disorders than those intended to be eliminated.

“There must be serious prospect of success.”

From a military perspective, there is little doubt of anything but success for any action the United State may undertake. However, while the U.S. may be able to eliminate a target from the map, the probability of the success for the stated mission is not so easily guaranteed. According the the resolution before Congress, the stated mission is the deterrent of the proliferation or use of chemical weapons. While the military may be able to eliminate production facilities and suspected storage bunkers, it cannot account for the scope of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal (or at least has failed to produce evidence publicly,) and cannot control the movement of such weapons or their transference to allied militias or non-state actors. There can be no resolute assurance that limited aerial bombardment can achieve the stated goal; therefore the third condition cannot be met.

All other means of putting an end to [aggression] must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.”

In the resolution submitted to Congress by the Obama Administration for the authorization of the use of military force, it states clearly that the opinion of the administration and Congress should be that, “the conflict in Syria will only be resolved through a negotiated political settlement[.]” This statement is enough to nullify the argument for this condition’s validity. In its request for the authorization of the use of military force, the administration admits that there is a non-military solution to the conflict.

The U.S. has also widely ignored the efforts from other IGO’s and governments, such as Russia, to broker a diplomatic solution. The Russian president, a strong ally of the Assad regime, is trying to negotiate a transfer of any and all of Syria’s chemical weapons into international control. This is a move that President Obama himself has indicated to be a possible political solution. Any use of military force against Syria under the current political conditions would not meet the validity of the second condition.

The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.”

From a strict interpretation of the condition, while the use of chemical weapons certainly inflicts grave and lasting damage, there has been no damage to the United States or U.S. allies in the region. However, it can be argued that the community of nations have a responsibility to act against the violation of fundamental human rights even when those violations do not directly damage their own individual nations. This is not a moral argument for preemptive war but rather an acknowledgment of the responsibility of nations to safeguard God-given rights. Under this argument, which appears to be the argument en vogue, the test of the first condition would appear valid. However, it must be stated that this understanding of the role of nations in the international community does not necessarily imply the use of military force, and that any use of force without the permission of the United Nations, done for any other reason than self-defense, is a violation of international law.


This conflict should be difficult to digest. The situation in Syria is a serious humanitarian crisis; it must come to an end and peace must be achieved. According to international law, Bashar al-Assad should be brought to trial for war crimes along with his supporting militias and the leaders of the rebel groups responsible for the war crimes observed by the United Nations. However, military intervention on the part of the United States as a response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons and as “a clear signal of American resolve,” is an immoral act that cannot be supported by Catholics and should not be supported by anyone. The result of armed military action is always the destruction of human life. The argument by the administration has been tested against the Just-War Doctrine and does not constitute a just war. As Catholics, we must stand opposed to the President’s plan and pray for peace in Syria.



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