Western ‘neutrality’ links Aleppo and the Guernica

Like in the Spanish Civil War, the West is standing aside and letting the killing go on, The next U.S. president’s stance will have far-reaching consequences.

By Moshe Arens

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150On the afternoon of April 26, 1937 aircraft of the German Luftwaffe Condor Legion and of the Italian Air Force bombarded the small Basque town of Guernica in Spain, deliberately targeting civilians in the city. Hundreds were killed. Hitler and Mussolini had decided to help Francisco Franco’s fascist rebel forces in their assault against the democratically elected government of Spain, and German and Italian aircraft took an active part in the war.

The horror of the attack on Guernica became known throughout the world. Protests were held. Pablo Picasso painted his now famous mural “Guernica,” graphically depicting the tragedy that befell the town. But the world’s democracies, the United States, Britain and France, continued to maintain a policy of “neutrality,” despite the active intervention of Germany and Spain in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of the fascists.

For Hitler and Mussolini it was an easy decision. They saw in Franco an ideological comrade, and were eager to try out their new weapons and ideas on how to wage war. For the West, intervening on behalf of the Republicans was a difficult decision. They were put off by the many communists in the ranks of the Republicans and Joseph Stalin’s support for the Republicans, and decided to stay out. The fascists’ victory was assured.

Today the civilian population of Aleppo is under attack. Unlike Guernica, Aleppo is a large city which had a population of about two million before the outbreak of fighting in Syria over four years ago. The battle for Aleppo is an ongoing confrontation between Bashar Assad’s Syrian armed forces, aided by the Iranians and their proxies Hezbollah, against a number of rebel forces. The fighting has been fierce and there have been tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Hundreds of thousands have fled the city.

Assad’s strategy is based not only on total disregard for civilian casualties, but on deliberately targeting civilians in the expectation that this would give him a tactical advantage. His favorite method for attacking civilians is the use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters on civilian neighborhoods, hospitals and schools.

In September 2015 Vladimir Putin decided to come to Assad’s assistance. He brought to the fighting Russia’s latest military technology: attack aircraft, missiles, the latest ordnance. Russian attacks were not limited to military targets, and there has been a subsequent rapid increase in civilian casualties since then. In September 2016 the Russians joined the battle for Aleppo.

There is no comparison between the extent of civilian casualties at Guernica and at Aleppo. The attack on Guernica took a few hours, while the fighting for Aleppo has been going on for years, and the killing potential of modern military technology being applied in the bombardment of Aleppo exceeds by far what was available to the German and Italian aircraft attacking Guernica 79 years ago. Nevertheless, the two events have something in common: In the Spanish Civil War the Western powers decided not to intervene, and now too they are standing aside and letting the killing go on.

Where is the present situation leading? That, of course, depends on the policy to be pursued by the leaders of the free world in the coming months. We do know what followed the passivity of the Western powers at the time of the Spanish Civil War. It was followed by the Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938, which was the prelude to World War II.

America will elect a new president this week. As she or he steps into the Oval Office in January 2017, the challenge of responding to the situation in Syria will be on the desk marked “urgent.” Hopefully, the new president, who will be the commander in chief of the world’s greatest army, navy and air force, will come well prepared to tackle this issue. How the next American president deals with this challenge will have far-reaching consequences for the world.

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