Thursday, June 06, 2013

History lessons

I don't like historical analogies. Events are never analogous and by using an analogy to explain them you can get things badly wrong. Most analogies are rhetorical tools, often used to create guilt by association - nazis, apartheid, etc., etc - without doing anything for our understanding of reality. Except...

This impassioned plea for action makes a comparison between the Syrian and Spanish civil wars. And it holds together. Of course the causes and the protagonists are completely different. Spain in the thirties tells you nothing about the Middle East today. The analogy is not about the war itself, but about the international response. In Spain the democracies cobbled together a non-intervention pact that all nations signed up to, even Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. It was only the democracies that abided by it. The Axis powers armed Franco, provided transport, sent planes and troops to swing the balance in Franco's favour. The British and French scrupulously embargoed arms to the Republican side. The vacuum was filled by Stalin, who used the opportunity to liquidate his enemies, even at the expense of fighting the war. It was the intervention from hell.

So what is happening in Syria? Russia is arming Assad to the teeth. Iran is deeply involved. Hezbollah militias have crossed the border to fight for Assad and may have turned the tide in his favour. The rebels are relying on support that is coming in from Sunni nations and going to Islamist groups. The west is doing little or nothing. Another intervention from hell.

The specifics are different, but the pattern of behaviour is the same. Democrats are left weakened and the contest begins to evolve into one between two sides, neither of whom you would want to win. In the meantime, civil society is destroyed, crimes against humanity are rife, ordinary people are subjected to the most appalling atrocities.

What this is showing once again is that non-intervention has profound consequences. It is not a neutral act. Proposals for peace conferences that will not be respected, even if they take place at all, are merely a fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of the poorly endowed. And so, when discussing the worth or otherwise of any international conflict, it is not enough to point out what went wrong. It is also important to consider the consequences of doing nothing and to see that inaction is rarely cost-free.

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