PARIS – With every passing week, the Syrian conflict increasingly resembles the Spanish Civil War. The images of warplanes bombing civilians and destroying cities have turned Aleppo into a latter-day version of Guernica, immortalized in Picasso’s masterpiece. But the real similarities between the two conflicts are to be found in the behavior of the international community’s main actors, which have again taken opposite sides.
On one side stand Russia and Iran, cynically determined to buttress President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On the other side stand the established democracies, hesitant and ambivalent in their support of the rebels. In 1930’s Spain, of course, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy fully supported General Francisco Franco’s rebellion, while the democracies reluctantly offered scant help to the Spanish Republic.
There are even deeper similarities. Many argued at the time that support for republican Spain meant helping the far more dangerous anarchists and Communists at a time when the Soviet threat in Europe was growing. In that sense, yesterday’s Reds have become today’s “fundamentalist Muslims.”
Indeed, for many nowadays, helping the Syrian rebels is too risky, and might even jeopardize the Middle East’s Christian minorities. While the Syrian regime is odious, they argue, the choice is between a hypothetical hope of democracy in the Muslim world and the real risk of endangering Christians’ lives. Unfortunately, therefore, one must choose the status quo.
Of course, Western vacillation reflects deeper strategic and diplomatic factors as well. Indeed, by shooting down a Turkish warplane that wandered into Syrian airspace, Assad’s regime intended to deliver a clear message to the international community: “Stay out of Syria’s domestic affairs.”
Syria is not Libya, and the political context has changed significantly, with America’s presidential election approaching and a deepening economic crisis in Europe. Rightly or wrongly, Russia and China believe that the time has come to take their revenge over an arrogant West that deceived them about the true purpose of “humanitarian intervention” in Libya.
This time, they hold the better cards. At a time when US President Barack Obama is basing his campaign partly on his withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and his plan to do the same in Afghanistan, he cannot take the risk of intervening in Syria. Meanwhile, the European Union is fighting for its survival, and cannot devote its energies to an uncertain battle. For the West, the timing of the Syrian rebels’ uprising could not have been worse.
But, despite deep divisions among the rebels, the cost of Western indifference is probably higher than the risk of intervention. The international community can no longer hide behind the pretense of ignorance. It lost its innocence decades ago. When faced with the slaughter of civilians, it can no longer pretend that it does not know.
But, beyond ethics, there are geopolitical considerations. With the Arab world in the midst of upheaval, what message does the West want to send? And, with global power in flux, what message is the West sending to the authoritarian regimes that are backing Assad?
These regimes can only read the West’s dithering as a green light for their cynical agendas. This is particularly problematic in the case of Iran. The less determination the West demonstrates in Syria, the more the Iranians become convinced that they can play with the international community’s nerves and patience indefinitely.
As Russia and Iran continue to send money and weapons, if not military advisers, to Syria, it is impossible to persist with hypocritical language that can be interpreted only as a formula for inaction. Threatening the Syrian regime with “terrible consequences” if it were to use chemical weapons means only one thing: “Bomb your civilians at will, but use only conventional munitions.”
The time has come to supply the rebels with what they desperately need: anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles. Of course, such a choice carries risks. Do we know the people we would be helping? After all, such weapons could be turned against the West one day, as they have been in Afghanistan. And, by involving ourselves militarily in the conflict, even if only by supplying the rebels, we might give a propaganda boost to terrorist groups that are already willing to strike in the West.
Nevertheless, the risks of passivity, indecision, and incoherence are even greater. The more the West waits, the more radicalized the rebels will become, weakening the standing and influence of moderate forces.
The logic of intervention goes through cycles. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and the subsequent refugee crisis and war in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa in the 1990’s, a combination of guilt, economic prosperity, and America’s unique international status led to interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and, unfortunately, Iraq. Today, we are in a completely different cycle, dominated by the ghosts of Iraq, the global economic crisis, and the (relative) decline of the West.
When it comes to intervention nowadays, respect for legality has overcome the concern for legitimacy that prevailed a decade ago. We have gone from one extreme to the other, whereas a middle road would be wiser.
But, above all, let us not forget the lessons of the Spanish Civil War. It is always dangerous to give the impression of being the first to blink when facing authoritarian regimes.