Let's consider the civil war in Spain in the 1930s, the one in Bosnia in the 1990s, and the one going on in Syria right now. They have some points in common.
The Spanish war had European repercussions: Germany and Italy openly supported Franco; the Soviet Union, more discreetly, the Republic. France and Great Britain preached an arms embargo on both sides, which in practice only affected the Republic, and pursued a policy of non-intervention which (as later in Sarajevo) was really a hypocritical but brutal form of intervention. Their appeasement of Hitler delayed the outbreak of World War II by only a matter of months.
In Bosnia, after the implosion of Yugoslavia, the Serbian nationalists enjoyed the sympathy of Russia and the covert complicity of France and Britain, which, through the UN force Unprofor oversaw a supposed "balance between the sides," while the arms embargo effectively punished the victims in Sarajevo. "Defend us, or let us defend ourselves," said the Bosnian President Izetbegovic in the UN, echoing the words of the Spanish Republican representative in the League of Nations decades earlier. No International Brigades came to help the Bosnians. But, enraged by the infamy of ethnic cleansing, volunteers did come from throughout the Islamic world, and were radicalized there, as later in Chechnya.
The pious desires of France and Britain and the so-called friends of Syria count for little in the present balance of the world order.
The patchwork of the Syrian civil war is more complex than those of the Spanish and Balkan wars, and threatens to detonate further trouble in the Middle East. What began as an aftershock of the Arab Spring earthquake has turned into a sectarian struggle not unlike the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in 17th-century Europe. Assad has the unconditional support of Moscow, Tehran, Baghdad, and of Hezbollah in Lebanon; the insurgents, that of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though their help is more economic and logistical than military, due to the UN's theoretical arms embargo. As in Spain and Bosnia, both sides have foreign volunteers: Shiites from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq supporting the tottering regime; while the insurgent forces are swelled by jihadists from far and wide, who have declared their adherence to Al Qaeda.
Tired of the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has not the slightest interest in direct involvement in Syria. The touted democratization of Iraq collapsed in sectarian violence, and Saddam's tyranny has been succeeded by a failed state in which Sunni and Shiite radical militias are at each other's throats. Since this seems a probable outcome if Assad falls in Iraq, Obama is unlikely to touch it.
The pious desires of France and Britain and the so-called friends of Syria count for little in the present balance of the world order. The veto of Russia and China against any Security Council resolution to authorize a military intervention in Syria paralyzes any chance of helping those who are fighting for the democracy peacefully demanded by the demonstrators in March 2011. Assad's forces, like those of Franco and the Serbian nationalists, have a huge superiority in armaments - which, however, has not enabled them to control the insurgent zones.
The hatred engendered by the massacres intensifies the fear, on the part of the regime's Alawite adherents, of what might happen should the insurgents prevail - so they fight all the more desperately. How long will it be before a peace like that of Westphalia will be possible?
"What a poor showing the famous Western Democracies have made," wrote Antonio Machado in 1938. As in Madrid, "capital of glory," and in Sarajevo in ruins, history repeats itself. Brute force prevails over the ethics and human rights theoretically defended by our own fragile and frightened democracies.