In the Romanija region, southeast of Sarajevo, there is a plateau that brings to mind the American Midwest. Wonky electricity posts dot a road which swings between hills and woods until it reaches the Drina river valley. In a badly signposted turnoff, there is a lane heading into a forest which then brings you to a clearing. A grave with the remains of at least a dozen Bosnian Muslims was found here six years ago. They were killed in 1992, after the area had fallen into the hands of Serbian forces.
This grave, like so many others in Bosnia, owes its existence to the vacillation of the West as much as the brutality of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade. Despite the information about massacres, rapes or images of concentration camps, Milosevic found significant support among the European left. Naively, they saw him as a communist who refused to bow before the West, as opposed to an opportunist who nurtured radical nationalism so as to hoist himself into power and eliminate opposition.
The world changes. But dogmatic ideologists less so. The Left’s silence over Aleppo and the atrocities and indiscriminate bombing of Syria’s civilian population has been deafening. There is no doubting the atrocities committed by the Russian-backed regime in Syria. Nor is there doubt of the Kremlin’s role in sparking and fuelling the war in Ukraine (similar to the role played in Bosnia by the Belgrade regime in the 90s), or its repression of domestic dissent. Yet many of the generation of the Left whose political awakening was the Iraq war seem disinclined to condemn these crimes, often denying them, just as many Westerners denied the existence of the Gulag back in the day. In so doing, such self-proclaimed leftists stand shoulder to shoulder with those European fascist groups who see in Putin’s Russia an example to be followed, along with Le Pen, Wilders and other demagogues of the “new world”.
One frequent response from the so-called “real left” to allegations made by the Western establishment is that, “The west is just as bad.” This line of reasoning claims that, given the West’s silent complicity in human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, for example, it is hypocritical and wrong to condemn them in Syria, Venezuela and Russia. The facts are often right, but the conclusion absurd. One can and should condemn all abuses – including those perpetrated by Western countries. But this is not incompatible with setting priorities in extreme crises such as Syria.
Another is the Manichean, “Everything is the fault of the West” argument, which conflates Iraq 2003 with Syria 2011-2017. This comfortable moral superiority conveniently spares those who use it the complex task of examining the causes of conflicts and taking on the responsibility of defining practical positions which might stray from comfortable ideological lines. Deep down, it also suggests a certain pseudo-colonial reflex: Foreign uprisings (in Syria, North Africa, Maidan etc) couldn’t possibly stem from common citizens’ grievances with their governments, so they must have been stirred up by the CIA, George Soros or some other agent of western evil.
The result of this myopic crusade against Western imperialism is to play straight into the hands of non-Western imperialists and the propaganda outlets of geopolitical rivals, uncritically swallowed by these political voices. Those who delight in revealing the ‘Western agenda’ in Syria, Ukraine or elsewhere often end up unwittingly promoting the agendas of Assad or Putin, safe in the knowledge that they themselves will not suffer the consequences.
We know the pitfalls of intervention, but the contrast between the deadlock at the United Nations and the tragic reality on the ground in Syria shows that timidity over intervention can lead to even worse scenarios. It is incumbent on those who argue the contrary to suggest what could be worse than the medieval barbarism with which Aleppo was besieged and destroyed while dogmatic pacifists tucked into their Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
As such, we must once again rethink the criteria for use of military force – a discussion which has been pushed to the sidelines by the constant emphasis on the fight against terrorism. After Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the 1990s concept of the responsibility to protect is troublesome, its profound meaning jeopardised after so many abuses. But if Europeans still value human security they cannot abandon its principles. Fortunately, there are political forces on the left who get this, including the German Green Party, some Scandinavian parties and some social-democratic forces.
There is now the chance to define a new position for the progressive and social-democratic left – one which learns from Syria just as it did from Iraq – so that when faced with the next Aleppo or Drina valley massacre we are slaves neither to 2003-style warmongers, nor the military geopolitics or inhuman utopias of others. This position should lay down basic red lines; for example that the use of chemical weapons cannot go unpunished (the Ghouta attack in 2013, attributed to Damascus, was a thorn in Obama’s side), and that war crimes will result in international prosecution. Both were key in ending the war in Bosnia and could play such a role again. Syria may now be unmanageable but in 2000 it only took 150 British paratroopers in Sierra Leone to stem the atrocities of the brutal and supposedly invincible West Side Boys.
This is a cruel world. Often we cannot avert terrible events and it would be counterproductive to create false expectations. Trying to end a war does not resolve the problems of the peace, as the Dayton Accords for Bosnia showed in 1995. But we must not allow the need to be reflexive about our own faults to obscure the crimes of others, or to prevent us from doing everything in our power to stop people dying, bereft of hope, as they once did in those hills of Bosnia.
Francisco de Borja Lasheras is Head of ECFR's Madrid Office, and author of the forthcoming book, “Bosnia en el Limbo: testimonies desde el río Drina”.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.