First published by 3 Quarks Daily
The news is alarming: whole families killed in the mountain villages near Lebanon and massacres in Damascus; sectarian clashes between Christian, Alawite and Sunni communities risk a descent into full-scale civil war. The French are demanding intervention, and together with the British threatening to dispatch warships to the Syrian coast; they seek an international mandate to do so. The Russians, wary of western plans in a region where their own influence is waning, are loath to agree. The Turks are anxious about the escalating violence, but ill-equipped to respond on their own.
Syria, in the summer of 2012? No, the Ottoman Syrian provinces – in 1860!
Thousands were killed in the clashes in 1860, and European newspapers printed lurid articles describing the violence against Christians. British and French objectives in the region were above all to extend their influence, lest the Russians fill the vacuum created by weakening Ottoman rule. The eventual French intervention, however, of several thousand troops, backed by the European powers, was justified in humanitarian terms – to protect innocent Christian lives. The French action is often referred to as the first modern example of a ‘humanitarian’ intervention.
There are, of course, important differences between the events of 1860 and a possible intervention to address the violence in Syria today. Recalling these events, however, reminds us that urge to intervene forcefully to protect innocents abroad is hardly new. Much is made of 24/7 news cycles, and the wonders of the Internet. But already in 1860, the public in Europe could be moved to outrage by newspaper accounts of atrocities in foreign lands….
Read the rest of this essay, along with critical responses by Gareth Evans and Kenneth Roth and a rejoinder by David Petrasek, on the 3 Quarks Daily website