Friday, May 17, 2013

From the Spanish civil war in the 1930s to Syria's civil war today – Michael Petrou explains the fallacies of "non-intervention"

I confess that I don't have any confident opinions about how the US and other western countries should be responding to the civil war in Syria, which has now been raging over two years and seems likely to keep escalating for the foreseeable future.  That's especially true because it's hard to be optimistic about a non-terrible outcome whatever the US does or doesn't do.  But the longer this bloodbath goes on, with its accumulating toll of inter-sectarian atrocities, the harder it is to imagine putting Syria's different communities back together again in a unified nation when the war is over.

To further complicate matters, this struggle can't be seen as a simple conflict between good guys and bad guys (as I noted last month).  The Assad regime is definitely a brutal, repressive, and murderous dictatorship that deserves little sympathy, but there are plenty of bad guys among the rebels, too.  The opposition to the Assad regime is not a unified movement with clear common goals, but a diverse collection of armed and unarmed tendencies with quite different agendas, who are being supported, funded, armed, and in some cases directly reinforced by outside forces that also have conflicting agendas. Those outside actors include not only governments (including those of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, counterposed to governments like those of Iran and Russia that are heavily backing Assad), but also increasing numbers of trans-national Sunni jihadists (to match the Hizbullah fighters from Lebanon and Iranian Revolutionary Guards operating in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime). And the longer the fighting has gone on, the bigger the role of radical Islamist fighters on the anti-Assad side.

=> On the other hand, it is possible to say with some confidence that a lot of the arguments being thrown around in the public debates about Syria are misleading, fallacious, misinformed, and/or based on false or questionable premises.  In particular, wwhile there are plenty of serious, intelligent, and plausible arguments to be made against US involvement in the crisis—even in ways that fall far short of military intervention—many of those arguing against US involvement fail confront, or even notice, the fact that in some circumstances inaction can itself be a form of action, with real and important consequences.  Circumstances of that sort might include a civil war in which other outside forces are already very heavily involved in backing, supplying, and arming one side or another—or particular factions within one side.  And that happens to be the situation with respect to Syria right now.

Historical analogies are always imperfect and need to be handled with care, but sometimes they can be illuminating.  Over the past several decades I've had several occasions to think about analogies to the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, when the western democracies followed a policy of "non-intervention" while Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy massively supported the Franco forces with arms, equipment, ground forces, and air power.  The result of this one-sided "non-intervention" policy was that the Spanish Republicans were starved for arms; were forced into dependence on the Soviet Union, which greatly augmented its influence in Spain as a result; and were eventually defeated, leading to the imposition of the Franco dictatorship.

During most of the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, in a bizarre partial replay of that script from the 1930s, the US and most European countries enforced a supposedly 'comprehensive' embargo against arms sales to both the Bosnian Serb militia and the Bosnian government.  This simply meant that one side, the Bosnian Serbs, was massively supplied by Serbia and had all the heavy weapons, whereas the Bosnian Muslims were starved for arms, slaughtered by the tens of thousands, and even (to a slight degree) forced to accept assistance from trans-national jihadis.  In the end, it took long-delayed NATO intervention (in collaboration with Croatia, which seized the opportunity to expel the entire ethnic Serb population from its Krajina region) to bring the bloodbath in Bosnia to an end.  But by that time, the different ethnic communities had become so polarized, traumatized, and mutually distrustful that it was almost impossible to reconstitute a viable and coherent Bosnia. (Saying "almost" impossible may be euphemistic, but I don't want to foreclose the possibility completely.  At all events, it hasn't happened so far. I am fairly confident that a NATO intervention in the early stages of the conflict, in 1992, would have saved tens or hundreds of thousands of lives; and by preventing the worst horrors that actually occurred, it might also have made a constructive settlement less impossible.)

The pattern of selective and uneven "non-intervention" in Syria today brings the Spanish analogy even more strongly to mind, since the civil war in Syria, like the Spanish civil war, has become a proxy war in which a whole range of outside actors, from the region and beyond, are heavily involved—and a lot of them are supporting the worst and most dangerous forces within Syria, either the Assad regime or the most radical Sunni Islamists among the rebels.  It might be argued that those are the only two realistic options, and that one of those forces is bound to come out on top in the end—or, at least, that involvement by the US and European governments is unlikely to make any positive or constructive difference.  Perhaps that's true.  But it's also possible (as Karim Sadjadpour and Trudy Rubin, among others, have suggested) that we need to consider seriously whether there are any viable alternatives to the Assad regime and the Sunni jihadists, how viable those alternatives are, whether US support ant assistance might strengthen their position, and whether it's a good idea to simply abandon the situation to the two most unpleasant forces and their foreign backers.

=>  I have been meaning to write something about the fallacies of western "non-intervention" in Syria today, and their analogies to the fallacies of western "non-intervention" in the Spanish civil war.  But I see (thanks to a tip from my comrade Terry Glavin) that Michael Petrou has already done a first-rate job of it, in a piece titled Homage to Latakia: Comparing Syria and the Spanish Civil War.

I might quibble with a few formulations in Petrou's first four paragraphs.  But everything he says in the following passage is on-target and important:
[....]  Another lesson from Spain, for those who choose to look, concerns the fallacy of non-intervention. That was the policy adopted by the democracies — including Canada — in 1936, when the Spanish general Francisco Franco, backed by his allies Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, launched a rebellion against Spain’s democratically elected government that eventually toppled it and enslaved the country.

We said it was a Spanish conflict, a civil war, and should be decided by the Spaniards. It wasn’t. The democracies might not have intervened, but other powers did. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany picked one side; Stalinist Soviet Union picked the other.

When the war began, the Communists were a minor force within Spain’s republican coalition. Then Spain’s presumed democratic friends deserted it, while the Soviet Union sent weapons and men. Soviet and Spanish Communist power consequently grew. By 1937, the Soviet NKVD and its Spanish allies ran secret jails in Madrid where they murdered political opponents from amongst their supposed anti-fascist comrades.

Which brings us to Syria. It’s been two years, some 80,000 deaths, and hundreds of thousands of displaced. What began as a democratic uprising has become a civil war. Those against doing anything about it have cycled through various arguments, all of which miss a basic point. Non-intervention isn’t an option, because intervention is already happening. Saying you’re against intervention in Syria is like standing in the middle of a blizzard and saying you’re against snow.

The Iranians are backing dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that usually concerns itself with rocketing Israel or preparing for the same, has dispatched fighters to Assad. The opposition is a diverse group, but what seems clear is that that the Salafi Islamists among them are gaining strength. Of course they are. For two years, they’ve been getting money and support from Gulf Arab states, while more the more moderate factions fighting Assad have received basically nothing the West.

Oh, maybe that’s not fair. The United States is sending “non-lethal” aid, because when it comes to knocking a strafing MiG jet fighter out of the sky, nothing beats a pair of night vision goggles. Canada is footing the bill for some refugees’ tents. Maybe we’ll speed up the refugee process for Syrians fleeing Assad. It’s not exactly a stirring expression of solidarity: “Your struggle is our struggle, and after you lose it, we’ll help you find an apartment in Mississauga.” John Baird should stitch that on a banner and march under it the next time he visits the Middle East.

But at least all this sitting on our hands has given time for a more coherent isolationist pitch to take shape. After years of fretting about the nature of opposition, now it does look a lot more unsavoury than when the war began. Our timidity has become a self-reinforcing excuse. Non-intervention weakened the hands of Spanish democrats, and it does the same to Syrian ones.
And although the assessment that Petrou offers in this conclusion may or may not turn out to be overly optimistic, it deserves careful pondering:
It didn’t have to be this way. We could have backed our natural Syrian allies when they were stronger. Doing so is now more complicated and difficult but still necessary. After two years, it’s a fair assumption that even if Western intelligence agencies are befuddled by the exact makeup of the opposition, the Turks and Jordanians probably have a pretty good idea. The more moderate elements of the opposition should be identified and given the weapons they need to prevail. There are escalating options on top of this: a protected safe haven on the ground; air strikes; a no-fly zone. The Syrian rebels have not asked for foreign troops, and I’m not suggesting we offer them. But a negotiated peace is not imminent. This war will end when one side wins. If we care about the outcome, we should be willing to shape it.
—Jeff Weintraub