My latest article being quite a long read, some key points are excerpted here (from How We Were Misled About Syria: George Monbiot of The Guardian).
George Monbiot has consistently declared himself morally opposed to military intervention in Syria; he is demonstrably aware of US-UK capacities for perfidiousness; and he knows how the media can manipulate news reports. Despite that, he criticises those of us who challenge the arguments of interventionists. I have sought to understanding his reasoning.
After reading through Monbiot’s writings on Syria between 2011-2017, and also having had some debate with him more recently, I find his stance to have been quite consistent over time. (There was just one occasion when he stunned even otherwise sympathetic readers by comparing jihadist terrorists in Syria with fighters of the International Brigades against Franco.)
His settled moral posture is based on principles of Just War Theory. He opposes military intervention in Syria because some of the necessary conditions for a just recourse to arms are not fulfilled. These particular conditions, however, are such that could in principle be met if only the intervening forces were sufficiently determined and scrupulous in their approach to getting the job done. The job itself, as Monbiot has consistently regarded it, is overthrowing the ‘Assad regime’. If that could be done cleanly enough, in his view, it would be right to do it.
Overthrowing Assad is, for Monbiot, a Just Cause. And a Just Cause is the one crucial condition for a Just War that cannot in principle be met simply by would-be interveners committing themselves to fulfil it. For whether ‘Assad must go’ is not a question that is legitimately theirs to decide: there needs to be a real moral case based on egregious facts on the ground. That is why Monbiot’s contribution to the public debate is so significant, for he has made the indispensable argument. Given his reputation for treating ethical questions seriously, Monbiot’s view in this matter will have carried greater moral weight than that of an overt interventionist would.
In the full article I undertake a more detailed analysis of his writings, but here I shall focus on two concluding arguments.
My first argument concerns the burden of proof. Any appeal to just war principles must acknowledge that the burden of proof rests on the party contemplating military action. Yet Monbiot has persistently accepted condemnatory claims about Assad and his government that are unsupported by available evidence while disregarding evidence that would support contradictory inferences. An instance was the peremptory judgment of Syrian government responsibility for the chemical incident at Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017. I attempted to engage him in debate about this, and Paul McKeigue offered very careful analysis of the incident in guest posts (this being the most recent). So I claim that Monbiot cannot credibly deny his judgement in the matter was questionable, if only because informed people have formulated very clear questions.
My second argument does not rest on showing Monbiot has failed to rebut some reasonable objections. The argument is that a Just Cause for foreign military intervention in Syria has not been proven for the reason that it cannot be proven. It cannot be proven because the principle of just cause cannot be applied to the situation in Syria.
The criteria of a just war apply in a situation where a people can legitimately take up arms against the forces of an aggressor. In the context of intervention, the taking up of arms is vicarious, but it is still done for the protection, and on behalf, of the people under threat. The point, then, is that before we can apply just war criteria, we have to have a situation that they can apply to: there has to be a threatened people and a threatening force.
In the case of Syria, a very elementary question concerns the identities of the two parties. Monbiot invariably insists that Bashar Al Assad is the aggressor, and on this basis Monbiot supposes that, if and when the Just War conditions are met, intervening against Assad is permissible. Yet a simple fact is that Assad is not and could not conceivably be an aggressor single-handedly. Assad and his government have an army; that army is drawn from the Syrian people; and that body of Syrian men and women has remained loyal for seven hard years of fighting. So the very first question any would-be interventionist must ask is this: under what conceivable conditions could that body of loyal Syrian men and women be regarded as an aggressor against the Syrian people? I do not know what Monbiot supposes on this score as I am not aware of his ever having explained where the Syrian army stands in his framing of the situation in Syria. I have not been able to track down any mention by him of it.
My argument is that sufficient reason for opposing military intervention against “Assad” is that he is literally not an aggressor against the Syrian people, and nor could his government or ‘regime’ be. For the possibility of even arguing there is a just cause of intervention in Syria, it would have to be claimed that the Syrian Arab Army is an aggressor against the Syrian people. I cannot conceive how anyone could decently make such a claim.
The Syrian government and the people living under that government in Syria take the view that foreign military intervention in the Syrian Arab Republic would be illegitimate under any circumstances whatsoever. Syria has the rule of law under a constitution, and, imperfect as it may be, its imperfections are for Syrians to deal with. Both international law and human morality are on their side.
To suggest there is any justification for foreign powers to intervene for the purpose of ‘regime change’ in Syria is to mislead the public. Because I believe Monbiot has suggested that, I have felt an obligation to engage in this extended critical analysis of his contribution to public opinion formation about Syria.