Who is winning the battle for the moral high ground in Syria?
Outrage. Again. In Syria. The latest cause of anti-Assad angst is an apparent chlorine gas attack against civilians in Aleppo. The only surprise is that anybody can still be surprised by such activity.
The first and obvious question is: why would the Syrian president order such an attack? The equally obvious answer is: because he can – and because it is effective. The evidence of the past five years suggests that he will suffer no repercussions. Russia ensures it.
Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin are regularly condemned by US, British and other political leaders and humanitarian organisations. The latest critic is Boris Johnson, the UK's foreign secretary. He refers to Assad's "killing machine" and Russia's "seemingly indefensible" protection of the Syrian leader. But Russia's approach is more sophisticated than blunt, indefensible realpolitik.
There are distinct moral underpinnings to every action in Syria, whether Western, Russian, Assad government and even jihadist. Each competing morality is shaped by the priority given to the individual, the state, or God. Westerners do not have to agree with the arguments, but they should be acknowledged. Also, Western moral assumptions have weaknesses that need to be recognised.
The official Syrian approach is the easiest to understand. Assad, his government and the remnants of Syria as we once knew it are fighting for survival. People will do extreme things in order to survive. The use of chemical weapons against civilians is just one of them. And it is not new.
When Britain was fighting a war of survival against Germany two generations ago, it deliberately bombed civilians. Even as the Allies started to dominate, Winston Churchill was prepared to use gas if necessary – he'd used it before as secretary of state for war in 1919 against Bolshevik troops in Russia.
In Japan, America was not remotely threatened with defeat when it opted to use the atom bomb against civilians. It was politically, and morally, preferable to sacrificing the lives of countless American soldiers. Those past events are still relevant because out of the Allied victory came the United Nations and its Charter – international law that stands to this day.
Which brings us back to Russian actions in Syria.
In 2015, Putin declared that Russia was acting within "the norms of international law". He means international law based primarily on state sovereignty and the rights to political independence and non-interference. This must be seen as distinct from international humanitarian law, which seeks to protect individuals in war.
The state – its independence, geographical integrity and interests – is prioritised above the individual in Russia's moral framework. Preserving Syria is an extension of that moral principle and many individuals can be sacrificed for it. A few hundred Syrians with chlorine burns and a few bombed-out hospitals – while terrible in themselves – are therefore seen as a price worth paying.
Such actions are regularly criticised by NGOs and Western governments. They are also routinely ignored or rejected. Such criticism is unimportant in the Russian morality at work in the service of the state.
Our morality is better than yours
From philosophers to politicians in the US, UK and elsewhere, there is a commonly held belief that Western morality equals universal morality – that "we" know how to behave and "you" should be like us. Then everything will work out for the better. Except it doesn't. Consider recent results of Western moral imperialism, backed up by military force in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Morally-based Western dreams of democratic utopia are dying in the deserts of these countries.
The US and its European allies have naively expected liberated peoples to surge towards the "freedom" of democracy – as if such a thing can ever be given. Instead, the countries they have "helped" in this mission are in violent chaos, and Islamic State and countless Islamist militias are fighting against secularising forces in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Many are supported, officially or unofficially, by states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Islamic State, like its religious competitors, has its own moral framework as well. Its leaders and fighters do not wake up each day thinking: "We are evil people doing evil things. How can we ensnare the innocent children of the West through our brainwashing?"
Like countless religiously motivated groups over many millennia, they offer an enticing morality that many find attractive: "Join us to escape Western decadent corruption and fight for a new way of living. Be rewarded in a heavenly paradise afterwards."
Jihadist social media use is sophisticated and enticing. It refers to God, faithfulness, sacrifice, honour, modesty, purity and other morally worthy ambitions. Ignore the contradiction that this purity is achieved through beheadings, torture, forced marriage, rape and deadly homophobia.
Race to the bottom
So where does that leave moral considerations in Syria? The Assad and Putin governments, Western powers, regional powers and Islamic State all have their own interests which are justified within opposing moral frameworks. The problem is not that these moral frameworks are all equally valid – they are not. The West is absolutely right to abhor and condemn both beheadings and chemical attacks – but we will not understand the behaviour of these various enemies unless we understand their moral motivations.
The problem is that every interested party thinks its moral framework is superior to everyone else's. And some are willing to behave brutally in order to prove it.