With every passing week, the Syrian conflict increasingly resembles the Spanish Civil War. The images of warplanes bombing civilians and destroying cities have turned Aleppo into a latter-day Guernica, immortalised in Picasso's masterpiece. But the real similarities are to be found in the international community's behaviour.
On one side stand Russia and Iran, cynically determined to buttress President Bashar Assad's regime. On the other side stand the established democracies, hesitant and ambivalent in their support of the rebels. In 1930s Spain, of course, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported General Francisco Franco's rebellion, while the democracies reluctantly offered scant help to the Spanish Republic.
There are even deeper similarities. Many argued that support for republican Spain meant helping the far more dangerous anarchists and Communists at a time when the Soviet threat was growing. In that sense, yesterday's Reds have become today's ‘fundamentalist Muslims'.
For many, helping the Syrian rebels is too risky. The choice, they argue, is between a hypothetical hope of democracy and the real risk of endangering Christians' lives. Unfortunately, therefore, one must choose the status quo.
Western vacillation reflects deeper strategic and diplomatic factors as well.
Rightly or wrongly, Russia and China believe that the time has come to take their revenge on a West that deceived them about the true purpose of “humanitarian intervention” in Libya.
They hold the better cards. At a time when US President Barack Obama is basing his re-election campaign partly on his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his plan to do the same in Afghanistan, he cannot take the risk of intervening in Syria. Meanwhile, the EU is fighting for its survival, and cannot devote its energies to an uncertain battle. For the West, the timing of the Syrian rebels' uprising could not have been worse.
But the cost of indifference is probably higher than the risk of intervention. When faced with the slaughter of civilians, the West can no longer pretend that it does not know.
Beyond ethics, there are geopolitical considerations. With the Arab world in upheaval, what message does the West want to send? And what message is the West sending to the authoritarian regimes that back Assad?
These regimes can only read the West's dithering as a green light for their cynical agendas.
As Russia and Iran continue to send money and weapons to Syria, it is impossible to persist with hypocritical language that can be interpreted only as a formula for inaction. Threatening the regime with “terrible consequences” if it were to use chemical weapons means only one thing: ‘Bomb your civilians at will, but use only conventional munitions.'
The time has come to arm the rebels. Of course, such a choice carries risks. Do we know the people we would be helping? Such weapons could be turned against the West, as they have been in Afghanistan. And, by involving ourselves militarily, we might give a propaganda boost to terrorist groups.
Nevertheless, the risks of passivity, indecision, and incoherence are even greater. The more the West waits, the more radicalised the rebels will become.
The logic of intervention goes through cycles. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and the subsequent refugee crisis and war in central Africa in the 1990s, a combination of guilt, economic prosperity, and the US's unique international status led to interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and, unfortunately, Iraq. Today, we are in a completely different cycle, dominated by the ghosts of Iraq, the economic crisis, and the (relative) decline of the West.
Respect for legality has now overcome the concern for legitimacy that prevailed a decade ago. We have gone from one extreme to the other, whereas a middle road would be wiser.
But, above all, let us not forget the lessons of the Spanish Civil War. It is always dangerous to give the impression of being the first to blink when facing authoritarian regimes.
Dominique Moïsi is the founder of the French Institute of International Affairs (IFRI) and a professor at Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). © Project Syndicate, 2012.