Fiddling Nero

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 

 9 September 2012


Emperor Nero sang and fiddled while Rome burned, according to popular legend. The reference is to the Great Fire which devastated Rome in 64 AD.

Fast forward to 2012. In the month of August, while the dictator Bashar al-Assad was bombing the Syrian people to smithereens – an estimated 25 000 people have died in the conflict to date – the Great Powers looked the other way and watched the 2012 London Olympic Games.

It seems to have occurred to no one that one of the key conditions for holding the Olympic Games in antiquity was the declaration of a truce, for the duration of the games, between any parties at war.

The reaction of the leading western powers to the civil war in Syria reminds us uncannily of the reaction of those self-same powers to the 1936-1939 civil war in Spain.

Fascist Italy supplied Franco’s Falangists with troops – the notorious “Black Shirts” – as well as planes, tanks and machine-guns. In 1937, at Franco’s request, Nazi Germany sent in the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion to bomb Durango and Guernica. Meanwhile, in the Foreign Office and the Quay d’Orsay the leading statesmen of liberal Europe twiddled their thumbs. But worse was to come. In 1938, at the height of the Spanish war, the British and French Prime Ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, agreed to appease Franco’s ally Hitler by signing an agreement in Munich which ceded to Germany the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia.

This supine agreement did not appease Hitler, needless to say. It only whetted his appetite for more. He went on to occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia with impunity. It was only when he invaded Poland in 1939 that Britain and France reluctantly decided to take action. But by then it was too late to save Spain. The Falangists had triumphed. Democracy was snuffed out and would not return until after Franco’s death in 1975.

Readers of this blog will know that we support military intervention on humanitarian grounds. Albeit not instinctively supportive of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in a post on 4 June 2012 we backed his call for western action to take out al-Assad.

They did it in Libya. Why can’t they do it in Syria?

The involvement of the UN in this conflict has been spectacularly unproductive.

In the UN Security Council, China and Russia vetoed military action to depose al-Assad. This is understandable. Both countries are dictatorships and wish to retain the ability to repress their own people with impunity. Endorsing military intervention to topple Syria’s tyrant would set a precedent for humanitarian intervention that could be used against themselves at a future date.

Instead of taking effective action, therefore, in February 2012 the UN and the Arab League appointed the useless Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general from 1997 to 2007, to “negotiate” between the dictator and his victims. The main provision of Annan’s peace plan was its call for a nebulous “Syrian-led political process” – with no requirement that the  dictator Bashar al-Assad step down or be tried for the slaughter he had instigated.

By the beginning of April 2012 the UN estimated the death toll for the year-long conflict at more than 9 000. Today that figure is 25 000. Last month Annan resigned, mission unaccomplished.

It has to be said that the UN has form when it comes to looking the other way. In Rwanda in 1994 an estimated half a million Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu rivals while the UN stood idly by. In 1995, towards the end of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, Bosnian Serb troops shot dead in cold blood 8000 captive Muslim men and boys while the detachment of Dutch troops detailed by the UN to protect them sat on their hands.

The Butcher of Damascus is being supplied with helicopters and tanks by Moscow. Teheran has sent troops to reinforce his army. If the West does nothing, it is to be feared that the result will be the same as it was in the Spanish Civil War. By dint of  his unspeakable savagery, the dictator may well eventually triumph.

The lessons of Munich, it seems, have not been learned.

Even at this late hour, the free world could – and, in our view, should –  intervene unilaterally, ie without UN Security Council approval, to stop the massacres being perpetrated, day in day out, in Syria.

After all, such action has already been legitimized by a patently more democratic body than the tiny self-serving club of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely the all-embracing UN General Assembly.

After Annan’s resignation as UN/Arab League peace envoy on 2 August 2012, the UN General Assembly voted by 133 votes to 12, with 33 abstentions, both to condemn the Syrian Government for using violence against its own people and to criticize the UN Security Council for failing to take action.


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

1. Why? or How? That is the question(3 Jan 2012)

2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices(2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012)

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat(31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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