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Syria Today As 1990s Yugoslavia — Or 1970s Italy?

Damascus in December.
Damascus in December.
Andrej Mrevlje


NEW YORK — In searching for an image that could help to illustrate the dreadful, complex and totally out-of-control situation in Syria, I stumbled upon an article in the Marginal Revolution that compares the events in Syria to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Since Yugoslavia and Syria were both multinational countries, and were both kept together by strong leaders like Tito and Assad, while their strategic geographical positions helped them to secure their international status, the comparison of the two countries is legitimate.

And yet, even as we are all alarmed by the immense tragedy in Syria and enraged by the callousness of the world's superpowers, I am also shocked by how short the human memory is. In only 25 years, we have already forgotten the bloodshed and the endless victims that human cruelty created. We've forgotten the huge waves of Croats, Bosnians, Serbians and other refugees who flooded Europe in the early ‘90s.

The cause of the civil war in Yugoslavia was clear from the beginning: it was the extreme nationalism proposed as the remedy for the country's social and economic problems. It was a domestic war, fought locally while the international community stood aside as a passive observer.

At least, this was the case during the first few years, when everyone from Brussels, Washington and Moscow were hoping that the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević, would become a new strongman who could keep the Balkan powder keg unexploded. But they picked the wrong man, because Milošević was the cause of the growing tensions among the various ethnicities whose interests were jeopardized by his one-sided decisions — something that was never the case in post-WWII Yugoslavia. Then the NATO bombing came at the end of the long and bloody war, which concluded with the terrible massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica under the watch of the U.N. peace forces.

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Collecting firewood during the siege of Sarajevo in 1993 — Photo: Christian Maréchal

But the story of the violent partition of Yugoslavia does not provide a complete image of the current, highly explosive situation in Syria, where multiple international forces and interests are directly involved. They provide financial aid, arms and military assistance that escalated into air raids, bombings and the presence of special forces. Syria is becoming a black hole — it sucks everyone in, and it will, in the end, explode in our faces.

Because of the presence of such a wide variety of forces and interests, the Syrian story reminds me of the 1978 kidnapping of Aldo Moro on the Via Fani in Rome. Moro was the former prime minister of Italy and was kidnapped while on his way to parliament to announce an agreement between his own Christian Democratic Party and the Italian Communist Party (CPI) to form a coalition government. In the aftermath of heavy blows by left- and right-wing terrorist groups, Italy was in permanent political crisis, and the country's two major parties had agreed to end hostilities and run the country together. In other words, the Christian Democrats and the Communists were ready to end their cold war. If they had succeeded, Italy would have put aside their post-war ideologies two decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall!

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Moro during his kidnapping in 1978 — Wikipedia

But it was too early. The forces that dictated the real Cold War policies were against it, even before Moro's kidnapping. Five years earlier, Enrico Berlinguer — then leader of the Italian Communist Party, who had just begun to propose the alliance with the Christian Democrats — had visited Bulgaria, and the KGB tried to kill him. Berlinguer escaped this attempted assassination, but did not want news of the attempt to spread. It wasn't until many years after Berlinguer's death that Corrado Incerti, then-journalist from Panorama magazine, was able to publish a little book on the failed attempt on Berlinguer's life. What the KGB failed to do, somebody else did with Aldo Moro.

But whoever arranged the kidnapping on that beautiful spring day in Rome was not alone. Just as Via Fani was crowded with secret servicemen, manipulated terrorists, politicians, generals and policemen, professional killers and fake prophets, so is today's Syria. The way it ended in Via Fani made us understand that the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro was a masterpiece by the forces that wanted to stop Italy from becoming politically stronger and more independent. It took them two months to negotiate, and when they finally agreed, they gave the order to kill the man.

It was in their best interest to maintain their equilibrium. Moro and Berlinguer were doing something that would put them off balance — they boycotted the superpowers and their way of reasoning. Syria is the Via Fani of today, except that in Syria, there are no rules left.

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[*Tarifit, Northern Morocco]

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