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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Same Nations in Syrian Standoff Two Centuries Ago.


Dedicated to the background of contemporary events around the world. 

Syria: The Obligation to Protect is Nothing New.

Hugh Graham, August 29, 2013.

            In 1876, the British public cried out for the protection of Serbs being slaughtered by their Ottoman rulers. Prime Minister Disraeli decided against it: he felt that Britain needed the Ottoman empire as a bulwark against Russia. 

            As the United States moves war ships closer to Syria; as France touts evidence for a poison gas attack by Syria's Assad government on its own people, and Britain clamours for intervention, the challenge seems simpler than Disraeli's: merely to protect the Syrian people from atrocities committed by its own government.

             In the region, the diplomatic use of the verb "to protect" is old: it has grown like a plant as big and as ancient as the cedars of Lebanon.The West has expressed the same thing in the same region, though in different ways, over centuries. The present concern of Europe, and Europe's cultural extension, the United States and Canada, plays upon a deep and sometimes murky political unconscious.

              In the nineteenth century, Europe showed concern for the rights of the "djimmi" or "people of the book" in the Levant: the Jews and Orthodox, Catholic and Maronite Christians who were second class citizens under Ottoman rule. France was concerned to protect the Maronite Christian minority in Lebanon which it had sponsored and educated. Britain decided to protect Lebanon's Druze Muslims from their Maronite enemies, as a counterweight to French influence.

           The confused and doddering Ottoman Empire gave first the French, then the British and then the Russians, and then both the British and the Russians the exclusive right to protect the holy places of Christianity. Russia wanted to protect fellow Slavs in the Balkans from their Ottoman masters. Disraeli's British public demanded the protection of Serbs from the Ottomans. More recently, Europe and the United States have helped to protect the state of Israel. They tried to protect peoples and interests during the Lebanese Civil war but were forced out. And presently they have worked to protect the democratic uprising in Libya and stood by unable to protect the Arab Spring anywhere else.

           Back in 19th century there was quite another use of the word "protect" in the same region. Britain and  France wanted to protect their trade with the Levant. Britain wanted to protect her eastern Mediterranean sea route to British India first from French and then from Russian ambitions. Russia wanted to protect naval access to the Mediterranean from British interference. Europe wanted to protect the Balkans from Russian ambitions. Russia wanted to protect the Balkans from both Europe and from Ottoman Turkey. Almost everyone sought protection from one another by using the Ottomans as a buffer. All that protecting usually coincided with the the protection of certain peoples and ethnic groups.

             It might be said that this time it's different, that the Western urge to intervene is purely humanitarian. But the same actors are still there and in some ways doing the same things. Is it purely a coincidence? Not entirely. The geography hasn't changed. Moreover, humanitarianism is mostly a western and somewhat Christian idea- at its most noble and its most ridiculous.

             Does it coincide with more practical interests as it did before? The United States and especially Europe want to protect themselves from the Islamist Syria that glowers on the horizon. Or at least the failed state and launching pad for anti-western terrorism that Syria will certainly become if the West can't find a way of controlling the civil war or waging the peace. Russia wants the same thing- but with Assad still in power because, like Russia, he is suspicious of democracy, he is secular, he is Russia's long-time client and he guarantees Russian naval access to the Mediterranean.

            So if there is Western intervention in Syria, it will not be an entirely holy war. And of course it never was. And even if it may be a little bit holier this time, it will be much, much messier.
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