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The U.S. can’t fix Syria. But can it do anything to make things even a little bit better?

There is no practical, ethical path forward. There are some small steps the U.S. can take, though. For now, that will have to do. 

Workers stand on rubble of damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria.
REUTERS/Aboud Hamam

The latest chemical weapons outrage in Syria and the latest pin prick military response from the U.S. are fading from view already, making little or no difference in a civil war that has killed at least 400,000 people.

President Bashar Assad has pretty much won this war, with huge help from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. He will continue using indiscriminate shelling, barrel bombs and other terror tactics against civilians and combatants to take back more rebel-held territory. If the past is an indication, he may resort to chemical weapons again. And U.S. officials will be pressed once more to respond.

After the Trump administration’s threats and bluster, after the policy debates about whether and how hard to hit Assad, was attacking Syria’s chemical weapons facilities the right thing to do? Was it enough? What else, if anything, should the United States be doing?

The politicians, military strategists and diplomats all have had their say, and they’ve led us down a dead end. So why not ask the philosophers? After all, this is essentially a moral question — a matter of justice for what appears to be a ghastly war crime. We want to believe that justice means more than a slap on the wrist, and we want to believe that U.S. policy should be about more than naked self-interest. What responsibility does the United States have, then, to try to set things right? When you set power politics aside and focus on ethics, is the path forward clearer?

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The answer largely is no. In this case, even the philosophers are stumped. Judging from recent conversations Atlantic associate editor Sigal Samuel had with several moral philosophers, there may be no ethical way now to make a big difference in Syria. The moral path seems much narrower, including supporting refugees. And it entails using international institutions — even if they are bound to fail — to try to bring Assad to justice, and try to shore up the global ban on chemical weapons.

One of those philosophers is Helen Frowe of the University of Stockholm, who specializes in the ethics of war and foreign intervention. Asked what she would do if she were the U.S. president, she answered bluntly: “Christ, I don’t know.”

Nancy Sherman of Georgetown University, asked whether the United States should intervene against Assad now, had a similar answer. “Oh, boy. I don’t know… I really don’t know.”

It might seem that philosophers have the luxury of focusing on theory rather than practice. But the most prevalent theory about warfare, the so-called Just War Theory (which also was debated prior to the Iraq war), has a strong practical component. It requires not only a just cause, which few doubt in Syria, but also that intervention would achieve more good than harm and stand a reasonable chance of success.

Some argue that the U.S. had a better chance to make a difference in Syria if it had intervened earlier – during the Obama administration. But those practical problems were nearly as difficult at the outset of the conflict, and were part of Obama’s calculation to stay out.

With that in mind, what can you actually do now?

Interviewed as the Trump administration, Britain and France were getting ready to attack Syria, both Frowe and Sherman indicated that while air strikes might not achieve much, they probably were better than nothing. They could show opposition to chemical weapons, and they might avert future use. Even then, in Sherman’s view, a leader’s intentions and moral character are important — and she has doubts about Trump.

The U.S. approach to Syrian refugees, of which human rights advocates are sharply critical, is a clearer case. In 2016, the U.S. allowed more than 15,000 Syrians into the country. Last year, Trump’s first in office, it was 3,024. So far this year, the total is 11 — all of them over 50 years old.

The State Department says the U.S. has provided more than $7 billion in aid for refugees and internally displaced Syrians since the war started, including about $700 million announced last September. About half the money has been spent inside Syria; most of the rest has gone to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. (In contrast, Norway, with slightly fewer people than Minnesota, has pledged more than $1.25 billion. Canada has admitted more than 40,000 Syrians.)

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Frowe says the U.S. also could work to bolster international agreements banning chemical weapons. And even though they stand little chance of success, the U.S. and allies could continue trying to make Assad face trial for war crimes.

In 2014, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution referring the conflict to the International Criminal Court. Early this year, before the latest chemical attack, Secretary General Antonio Guterres called again for Assad’s government to be referred to the court. Russia would certainly veto another such resolution. Times change, however. It took years, but Balkan leaders eventually did face international justice for their actions in Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s.

The U.S. can’t fix Syria. There is no practical, ethical path forward. There are some small steps, however. They won’t satisfy the urge for justice, but they might make things a bit better. For now, that will have to do.