Aleppo and the Injustice of Civilian Casualties

Aleppo has fallen, and in its wake, one of the greatest atrocities of our time is coming to light. Pro-Assad forces took control of the city and did so ruthlessly. The United Nations reported “summary killings” by those forces and has accused the Assad regime of war crimes. America’s ambassador to the UN asked those who conspired to bring about this atrocity,”Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?”

However, for those who have followed the war in Syria, even in the slightest bit, the headlines prove revolting, but not surprising. Syria’s war rages as two competing factions fight for the heart and future of the country and both are content to pursue those ends at any cost. Since 2011 much of Syria’s population has been caught in the middle. They are people who, just like you and me, want to live their lives and care for their families in peace.

man-and-child-in-aleppo-afpThe civilian toll represents the greatest casualty of this long and drawn out war. War, though sometimes necessary, is evil. And yet, this is different. Americans struggle to imagine the type of war that has ravaged this country. Aside from battles fought primarily during the Revolutionary and Civil wars, this land, unlike so much of the world, has remained relatively unscathed by the ravages of war.

Most pointedly, however, America’s Christian heritage has gifted us a just war framework by which we operate, even if unknowingly and imperfectly. We believe in the jus ad bellum (the right to go to war) and frame our debates about going to war in these terms. As a society, we have felt the high cost of war and desire to fight only those that we can deem just.

More importantly, we believe that war is not a no-holds-barred proposition. We cling to the jus in bello (right conduct in war) so that in war we will not lose our souls and become that against which we are fighting. The greatest distinction of the jus in bello is the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.

We recognize a categorical difference between a man holding a bomb and a man holding a baby. One is an aggressor seeking to end life while the other is a bystander trying to protect life. Civilian casualties are always part of war because wars are not fought on self-contained battlefields. They are contested near civilian populations. Thus, the terrible cost to the civilian population remains one of the great horrors of war and one that we rightly seek to limit. 

However, forces on both sides of the conflict in Syria lack any notion of a just war theory. The loss of civilian life is merely the price that must be paid to gain or retain control. The people of Syria have paid the impossibly high price of being the bystanders of a war between two heartless factions, and in many cases they have paid the ultimate cost. 

When this war is over, those in charge and on the ground, having fought ruthlessly for over five years will recognize the high cost that they have come to pay for their victory. They will win the battle for Syria but the victory will have cost them their very soul.

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