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Resurrect the International Brigades

February 22, 2012

by Andrew Parker

During last year’s US and NATO intervention in Libya, I could not help but feel a boost in confidence toward the UN Security Council. For once it seemed that a humanitarian cause had superseded the political and economic interests of the major permanent members and their proxies. In a way, intervening militarily in Libya was easy: Libya had a small population spread along a narrow strip of Mediterranean coastline, and the warring parties were each confined to roughly half the country. With the recent veto by Russia and China of a resolution on Syria that did not authorize intervention, but merely condemned the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad, this confidence has been shattered.

There has been a great silence from all sectors regarding Syria. This partly reflects the complex foreign and domestic political webs surrounding the country, but also the complexity of the uprising itself. I suspect people had hoped Syria would follow the Egypt/Tunisia model of Arab revolution: peaceful, for the most part, ending in a political transition and free and fair elections. Indeed I had hoped for this as well. With 5,000+ murders committed by the Syrian regime, this path is clearly no longer an option. Conscientious objectors in Syria have defected from the army to protect peaceful demonstrators, who amazingly still go out into the streets in the thousands, even as artillery shells fall around them. Unfortunately, the defectors are too few and poorly armed, and this brave practice is unsustainable. In the face of an impotent international community, a failure of international law, and an unrelenting dictator, other avenues must be pursued.

George Orwell is a popular figure with the authors (and presumably the readers) of this site. He joined the POUM, a faction associated with the International Brigades in its mission to defend the Spanish Republic against the forces of the Nationalists, led by Fransisco Franco. The infamously weak League of Nations had a response to the Spanish Civil War comparable to the UN response to Syria today. Drawing inspiration from Orwell’s fervent opposition to fascism and willingness to travel and fight against it, I propose the formation of an organization similar to the International Brigades to assist the forces of democracy in Syria against the brutal and fascistic conduct of Bashar al-Assad.

There are myriad advantages to such an organization. As a private endeavor, it circumvents the inefficacy of the United Nations. This would not be a mercenary group or a jihadist group; it would be motivated by the ideals of volunteerism, secularism, and humanitarianism. Its oversight and rules of engagement would presumably come from the group for which it volunteers (in this case, the Free Syrian Army). Funding for weapons and other crucial supplies could come from private citizens not wishing to participate directly in the conflict, or from sponsoring countries. The FSA and the Syrian National Council have already received infusions of funding from wealthy Gulf states.

Participation in the new International Brigades does not have to be limited by country of origin, though knowledge of Arabic and previous military experience would obviously be preferable. Libya is a perfect source for volunteers after their civil war, and indeed may already be helping the FSA in that regard. The International Brigades of the 30s boasted a membership derived from 53 nations around the world, including the US, France, Austria, the USSR, and China, so there is no reason that could not be replicated. According to the guidelines issued by the US State Department, Americans could theoretically travel to Syria to fight without fear of losing citizenship or other repercussions. This was not the case for American participants with the International Brigades in the 1930s. Those Americans faced limits advancing in the army during WWII and persecution afterwards as Communists.

In a perfect world I would prefer for intervention in the Syrian Civil War to be carried out by the United Nations, or have that duty delegated to NATO. With their established military and financial resources and existing command structure, the intervention would presumably be quicker, more effective, and more accountable. But in this extreme case, with inaction from the world’s major powers, and an increasingly desperate situation for the people of Syria, a resurgent International Brigade may be the only hope.

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