When is a massacre OK, when not?

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. 

30 August 2013

What is the difference between killing people with a spear and starving them to death by failing to ensure that they have enough to eat?

This is the question that the Chinese political philosopher Mencius posed to Chinese rulers in the period of internecine conflict known as the Warring States (403-221 BC).

Today, in the light of the daily carnage in Syria, we might ask what is the difference between killing people with explosives and killing them with nerve gas?

Only this week a regime pilot dropped an incendiary bomb on a school courtyard in northern Syria that killed, maimed or burned scores of children, leaving them with napalm-like burns all over their bodies. The atrocity was hardly mentioned in the news.

For two and a half years, since the revolt broke out on 15 March 2011, the western powers have sat on their hands, rejecting incessant pleas for help from the motley band of freedom-fighters and jihadis who have rebelled against the vicious sectarian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

During that period, more than 100 000 people have been slaughtered, according to UN figures for June 2013, an estimated 50 % of these being civilians, while about four million citizens have been displaced from their homes within Syria with another two million fleeing to seek asylum in neighbouring countries.

Then on 21 August 2013 in the al-Ghouta district of Damascus, the Syrian capital, an estimated total of over a thousand people were slaughtered indiscriminately in a poison gas attack attributed by most experts to the al-Assad regime.

Suddenly, the western powers woke up from their slumber and vowed military retribution on the perpetrators.

Those who had been quite happy for the dictator to slaughter tens of thousands of his fellow citizens with conventional weapons found it quite unacceptable that he should use nerve gas to kill them.

On this issue, Antigone1984 sides with Mencius. We do not believe that blowing someone to smithereens with conventional rocket shells is any less morally reprehensive than killing them with poison gas.

A letter from reader Colin Macnee criticizing western inaction on Syria, which was published in the London Guardian newspaper yesterday 29 August 2013, sums up our view precisely:

“Had more been done to arm the rebels a year or more ago, that most venal and brutal regime would likely have been toppled by now, tens of thousands of lives spared, the ravaging of the country mitigated, and the influence of Islamic fanatics minimised.”

In our post  “Crocodile Tears”  published as far back as 3 April 2012, we said:

“Antigone1984 believes that the sword is mightier than the pen.

“Hence, we are in favour of armed humanitarian intervention to save the lives of human beings threatened with annihilation by brutal regimes.

In 2011 we supported armed humanitarian intervention in Libya – as did the “international community”. Unlike that same “international community”, we support it today in Syria.

Are the lives of Syrians less important than the lives of Libyans?

Or is it just that, compared with Libya, Syria has fewer oil reserves to be exploited by the international oil majors?” 

Given the disastrous outcome of the recent western occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, we do not favour putting “boots on the ground” in Syria. However, we do believe that the rebels should be equipped with adequate weaponry and trained to use it. Above all, a no-fly zone should be imposed, since it is al-Assad’s monopoly of air-power that has given him a crucial advantage over the rebels.

As Guardian reader Mcnee also said in the letter mentioned above,

“Irrespective of who carried out the gas attack in Damascus, the catalogue of atrocities committed by the Syrian armed forces and militia thugs in support of a regime which has institutionalised torture is sufficient reason for limited military strikes to limit the use of air power against the rebels.”

The western powers have spent the last week threatening token air-strikes against the regime – possibly using guided missiles rather than piloted airplanes –  to punish it for using poison gas at al-Ghouta. The aim is simply to dissuade the regime from using this weapon again, not to take sides in the conflict or to bring about regime change.

We think that this is the wrong approach and might well provoke the regime into committing even more heinous acts. We believe that the object of any western action should be precisely to achieve regime change – to boost the rebels and dethrone the despot.

All the more so since – while the western powers have turned a deaf ear to pleas for help – the Syrian dictator has not wanted for allies of his own. Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, has been supplying him with heavy weaponry, rockets and ammunition, while Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have provided guerrilla fighters and troop reinforcements as well as military hardware.

The conflict is asymmetrical, as a result, with assorted bands of badly coordinated rebels facing an overwhelmingly superior despotic regime backed by powerful outside interests.

There is an inescapable similarity with civil-war Spain (1936-1939), when the Great Powers looked the other way as Franco’s fascists decimated the democratic opposition and set up a brutal dictatorship that was to last for 35 years.

As we wrote in our post “Fiddling Nero”  on 9 September 2012,

“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 civil 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.”

Is this what the western powers want for Syria?


 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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