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Guernica 1937 and Damascus 2013: A Frightening Comparison

As Syria continues its descent into a hellish self-destruction, its barbaric civil war is being frequently compared to the equally brutal Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, which served as a prologue to the Second World War. It is said that history may not repeat itself, but it often rhythms. If that is so, then rhythmic parallels must be drawn to the probable chemical warfare attack within the Damascus Governate of Syria on the outskirts of the capital city, targeting the Ghouta region, currently in the hands of anti-Assad rebels.

During the Spanish Civil War an episode occurred that seemed so barbaric, even by the already ruthless standards of that horrific internal conflict, that the conscience of the world was briefly (ever so briefly) aroused. On April 27, 1937 an air raid was conducted on the town of Guernica, located in the heart of the Basque countryside. The attack was unleashed by foreign military elements allied with General Francisco Franco, head of the Spanish fascist forces, seeking to overthrow the elected Republican government in Spain. Planes from the Condor Legion, an air force contingent sent by Nazi Germany, assisted by bombers from the air force of fascist Italy, leveled Guernica to the ground, in the process slaughtering hundreds of defenseless civilians. The dead men, women and children of Guernica inspired the great expressionist painter Pablo Picasso to immortalize the carnage within that broken Basque town in his iconic painting, "Guernica."

The outrage did not last long. When the Spanish Civil War first erupted, the rationale exercised by the major democratic countries for non-intervention was that active assistance they might provide to the Spanish Republic would encourage Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to intervene in Spain on the side of Franco. When the two totalitarian nations did send massive military contingents to fight actively in Spain in support of Franco, in the absence of Western aid the Soviet Union and a force of largely communist volunteers known as the International Brigades entered the fray on the side of the elected government in Spain. That provided another excuse for non-intervention by the democratic countries; actively helping the democratic government in Spain, flawed as it was, would aid international communism, so argued the politicians and pundits of the day. We know what followed; Spain fell and the forces of totalitarianism, encouraged by the passivity of the democratic world, unleashed a world war of conquest.

In Syria, the absence of meaningful Western aid when the Free Syrian Army began its valiant struggle against the oppressive rule of the Basher al-Assad dictatorship led to a void which became increasingly filled by Jihadi radicals flowing into Syria from aboard. That in turn added further justification for Western inaction. Meanwhile, the totalitarian regime in Iran began its direct intervention in the Syrian Civil War on the side of Assad, employing both its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Shiite proxy, the Hezbollah militia.

The apparent chemical warfare attack on the environs of Damascus by Assad's forces involving a form of nerve agent on Aug. 21, 2013 may have killed more than a thousand non-combatants, including hundreds of children. The videos that have emerged from the hell that is now the Ghouta region sear the conscience of humanity; who cannot be moved by the sight of small children convulsing in agony before their torment ends with a death that seems a merciful release?

If after a brief interlude of moral outrage and verbal condemnation the international community resumes its indifference towards the escalating atrocities in Syria, it may find itself confronting the same insidious evil, on a much larger scale, as much of the world discovered after its silence over the horror that was Guernica.

Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus is the Guernica of 2013. We ignore its lessons -- and its consequences -- at our peril.

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