When the Vietnam War came to an end in 1975, the Viet Cong rose to positions of power across the country. Meanwhile, two smaller neighbouring countries, Cambodia and Laos, saw their governments overtaken by armed communist movements. The Communist Party in Laos, which remains one of the poorest countries in the world, is still in power and remains a close ally to Vietnam. In Cambodia, things developed differently. The Khmer Rouge, which represented the main opposition force to Lon Nol’s pro-American, nationalist government, was deeply influenced by Maoist doctrines and had deep ideological differences with the Viet Cong. Once in power, the concept of “the virtuous countryside over the corrupt cities” forwarded by Chairman Mao, was held up as a major policy instrument in the newly renamed Republic of Democratic Kampuchea.
Heavily supported by the People’s Republic of China, the Khmer Rouge undertook the “reeducation” of the entire country, deporting most of the urban population to the countryside to toil in forced labor camps. This resulted in the extermination of nearly one-fourth of the entire Cambodian population. Exacerbated at how nightmarish the regime had become, a faction of the Khmer Rouge led by Heng Samrin and Hun Sen revolted against Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and other criminal leaders. The Vietnamese army helped the insurgents against the Khmer Rouge by sending a significant division of troops. China, under Deng Xiao Ping’s authority, was unable to forgive Vietnam for having helped overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime.
Thus, China's People's Liberation Army attacked Vietnam from the north. Around 350,000 troops supported by nearly 400 tanks saw the Chinese army occupy a number of cities near the frontier, while local Vietnamese troops, totaling a hundred thousand men, and those from the regular army consisting of around 70,000 soldiers opposed the Chinese advance. The well-seasoned Vietnamese forces gave the Chinese a good slog, but China claimed victory after three weeks of fighting before steadily withdrawing its forces. So long as the Vietnamese army remained in Cambodia, a presence that lasted until 1989, China's supposed success in their “punitive” action came to no avail. The Khmer Rouge never returned to power.
The situation in Syria is similar in many ways. A regime, whose legitimacy rests upon a “coup d’état” that occurred back in 1970 and that has deported, exiled or annihilated a third of the population to remain in power, claims to represent the latter. Bashar Assad has no more legitimacy in Syria than the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The difference is that the Vietnamese army helped insurgents and resisted the Chinese invasion, saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. However, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are not in the same position and cannot resist Russian and Iranian forces without openly declaring war on them. Turkey has saved the lives of millions of Syrians but has not been able to help the Syrian opposition adequately. As I have previously written, the policy of the U.S. – and incidentally the EU – toward Syria, similarly, remains a disaster that we all continue to pay a high price for.
Why do I think Syria is a turning point? Well, as in the Sino-Vietnamese War, the conflict may spark a process of reformulating conceptions of an entire system of values. Socialism, as seen by its founding fathers, would mark the end of nationalistic wars between countries. However, the fact is a socialist country attacking another socialist country marked the end of the “socialism” idea and system – as understood only by a limited number of people at the time.
The situation in Syria is not exceptional; democracies always get cold feet when it comes to engaging their military forces abroad – something that is not at all a problem for authoritarian regimes. The regime in Iran would have very badly lost the elections if they had been indeed real, participative and democratic. All Iranians can do now is to somehow boycott the simulacra of elections, but the regime remains firmly in place. This is the advantage of non-democratic regimes – they can stay in power until a paroxysm change happens.
What could be detrimental to democratic regimes – and perhaps considered lethal for the future – is the way everyone exchanges their principles for short-term solutions and quick fixes. The TSK is in a dire situation in Idlib, conducting operations without air cover. This is a very delicate situation. Turkish soldiers and opposition forces are encircled by the regime militia, mostly backed by Iran, and the air force loyal to the regime, almost exclusively Russian. Iran and Russia are two countries that are totally unreliable in international relations. They have proven their unreliability time and again, but the problem is that they are being challenged by no one but Turkey.
On the other hand, the situation in Libya is a total disaster for democratic countries. Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces are made up of former militia and terrorist groups that govern the no man’s land of the Sahara desert to the south. Sudanese Janjavid forces, responsible for the killing of thousands of civilians under Omar Bashir’s regime, have been massively enrolled by Haftar's forces. Now all these disparate and deeply unreliable forces are supported by France and Italy because they would seemingly stop waves of migration through Libya and at the same time prevent jihadist attacks on French forces in Subsaharan countries, especially in Mali and Chad. As a reaction, the TSK has been helping Libya's internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). A number of opposition forces in northern Syria have been deployed in Libya. This is also an extremely delicate move that could have drastic consequences.
As democratic countries, if we support increasingly unreliable militia forces to solve issues pertaining to migration, we would be betraying most of the values that frame the classic axiom that two democratic countries can never go into armed conflict against one another. We must keep in mind that the stakes in Syria and Libya are much higher than most care to admit.
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