Friday, November 21, 2014

For Whom Syria Tolls

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.

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    1. CommentedOle C G Olesen

      The Syrian War is equally an internal War between Sunnis and Shias ... a religious schism where EUROPE should play the role as MEDIATOR ..and NOT take the position of ONE Side .. as such an approach would come to HAUNT ..the European Unions relationsship with its immidiate neighbours for Decenniums to come . Stabilisation - peacefull ,just and negotiated solutions of evt conflicts - should be the priority of The European Union in relation to all its neighbours ! THAT will promote a peacefull and friendly coexistance with our neighbours and secure PEACE in our part of the World !

    2. CommentedOle C G Olesen

      I would like to point out that in Mr Moisi's analogy of External Military Intervention in The Spanish Civil War ..and the War in Syria ... the German/ Italian support of Franco should be analogized with the OPEN SUPPORT and ARMING of a disperse group of Insurgents / Terrorists ( often even from Outside Syria ) by the USA / the UK / Israel / Turkey / Saudi Arabia /Quatar and may be other foreign Nations . This partly ADMITTED partly COVERT interference in another countrys affairs is in itself a blatant violation of all International Conventions in such situations ! It sets ANOTHER prescedent of OMINOUS Nature ., in which The EUROPEAN UNION should NOT participate ! It is equally suspicious that this destabilisation of Syria occurs at a time when potential big Oil/ Gas discoveriies have been made in the Mediterrainean ..bordering to the coast line of also Syria .. and the lack of mention of Syrias legitimate interests in such eventual riches.. is telling... by its abscence !

    3. CommentedThomas Graham

      Professer Moisi makes some educational and interesting historical comparisons vis a vis Syria. But his grasp of international realpolitik is weak, and his backing for neoliberal humanitarian western intervention in Syria (a civil war western govts. actually lit the touchpaper on and have armed and financed from the start) is ill-informed at best, and disingenuous at worst. He ignores completely very stark diplomatic, economic and geopolitical realities. The cheapest, least destabilising, most peaceful way to end the bloodshed in Syria (one that prevents a regional war and has the lowest global body count) is for Syria's Arab neighbours to intervene diplomatically and broker an armistice, peace deal and democratic improvements in the country. At a time when the Muslim world is in uproar, any further western intervention in the Middle East & North Africa would risk lighting a powerkeg that even the hand of God would find difficult to extinguish.

    4. Commentedjuninho sur

      Did you just see what happend to the US ambassador in Libya, Mr. Moisi? And now you demand that the US arm Syrian jihadists with anti-tank weapons and SAM's? Are you flipping crazy? They could bring down an airliner someday!

      Remember that yesterday's "Freedom Fighters" can easily become today's murderous terrorist...

    5. CommentedVivek S

      I don't think this article explains why the rise of fundamentalism isn't a far bigger threat to the world than an autocratic regime?

      Yes, moral obligation will demand intervention, but when the revolutionaries will opportunistically take help, but in future form their own dictatorship and furthermore hit back at the world, why bother?

      I think UN should intervene *only* when a rebel leader or a regime requests for help and the terms of the intervention must be clearly spelled out, signed in triplicate and distributed among the people so they know that the West is not out to wage a war against Islam.

      Furthermore, why don't other middle-east countries send their troops in for peacekeeping? Why does it always have to be Western forces? There isn't one example of a liberal middle-eastern country in centuries and not one example of taking responsibility for the region. Its time for the middle-eastern countries to lead for themselves.