The current Civil Wars in Syria and Egypt has me considering similarities they may share with the American Civil War. One of the most pertinent questions shared by Syria and the American Civil War is whether foreign countries have the right to intervene. Jefferson Davis banked the Confederacy’s success on his expectation England and France would provide recognition and support. Foreign intervention also appears to be critical to the hopes of the Syrian Rebels.
President Lincoln used legalese to argue that the Confederates States of America was NOT an independent nation despite its own government and army. James Stokesbury writes “Lincoln was doing his best to assert that this was not a war between two sovereign states but rather the suppression of an illegitimate rebellion by a legitmate government” (45). England in response declared themselves neutral and recognized the South as a “belligerent power” which placed both the United States and Confederate States on equal international footing. Indeed, some English leaders saw the upstart United States as a potential threat to its super power stature and the island nation had a sizable population who felt a brotherhood with Southern Americans. As a result, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman writes “the Confederacy ultimately imported millions of pounds of saltpeter for making gunpowder and 400,000 rifles.” Despite native bonds and smuggled munitions, this limited acknowledgement was the best Davis would get. The Emancipation Proclamation combined with Confederate losses in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Mississippi made it difficult for England to look beyond Lincoln’s legal maneuvering and offer full recognition and even intervene.
Some observers claim that as today’s super power, the United States should intervene in Syria and throw its support behind the Rebels fighting President Assad’s regime. Certainly, Rebel groups are vying for help from the Americans its Western allies. As England discovered int he 1860s, however, intervention in a Civil War is complicated. The Syrian Rebels are a divided lot between native fighters and foreign jihadists and as a result they are losing on the battlefield to Assad’s loyalist army (which is supported by its own host of foreign governments). Intelligence officials have the nearly impossible task of deciding which rebel groups to supply weapons to without strengthening terrorist groups. At least the English, despite their reticence, were confident who they were negotiating with in the South during the Civil War.
Like England which used caution to intervene alongside Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria and Napoleon III of France, the United States today must maneuver around shady and dangerous foreign influences like Sudan and al Qaeda in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the United States will directly support the Syrian Rebels as it would be considered an act of war and could inflame an already fragile Middle East.
One significant difference to note between these wars is that the Confederacy attempted to leave the United States. Southern goals did not include toppling the Lincoln administration and forcing Northern citizens to live the Southern way of life. The Syrian Civil War is just the opposite as it is fought for control of the entire nation and who will decide which way of life will thrive. Would support for the Syrian Rebels occur quicker if they were asking for their own section of Syria? Would European nations consider helping the South in the 1860s if the Confederacy had wanted to conquer the North? Would the use of an illegal weapon (hard to imagine in the 1860s) prompt intervention – could the blockade be considered illegal and thus justification?
Would President Lincoln acknowledge a Coup Occurred in Egypt?
Although very willing to call for President Assad’s ouster in Syria, the Obama adminstration has refused to acknowledge that Egypt recently experienced a Coup d’etat. Most Egyptians, no matter their affiliation, understand that a coup occurred. Even American Congressmen who recently visited the country have come to this realization.
This convenience of language (or just refusal to publicly define a word) reminds me how the Lincoln administration defended its blockade of Southern sea ports as a part of the Anaconda Plan. The blockade could not be considered a blockade because that action is typically considered an act of war between foreign adversaries. What nation, after all, blockades itself? Technically, the blockade confirmed the legal existence of the Confederacy and opened the door for foreign intervention. The practicality of the Blockade and if it was enforceable was another debatable proposition where Lincoln’s administration had to become master sophists. Still, while he maneuvered the legality of the blockade internationally, he did not mince his words to Southern states in this official proclamation.
The Obama administration’s equivocation on the Egyptian coup is similar to Lincoln’s definition of blockades by saying the Egyptian coup is not a coup although the rest of the world knows it was a coup. Why? From what I have read, the US government favors President Morsi’s removal from office. Morsi is the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood party and a frequent critic of the US. However, the fact remains the Brotherhood won a democratic election and as a defender of enfranchisement, how does the US support the removal by force (a coup) of a democratically elected leader even if that leader is not friendly to western interests? In addition, American laws dictate financial aid (over $1 Billion annually) to Egypt cannot be handed over if the government is overthrown by a coup. Egypt is a critical ally when it comes to North African and Middle Eastern affairs (think Iran and Israel) and it seems that alliance is clouding how we see the tragic events unfolding in Cairo over the past few days. Lincoln was able to weather foreign criticism regarding the blockade and the Confederacy’s international status by altering the war’s focus to the abolition of slavery. The Obama administration risks losing its credibility and have any influence on events in Egypt the longer it goes without making a definitive call whether a coup occurred or not and who it supports.
It is interesting to note that President Assad has confidently declared that when he successfully puts down the rebellion, he will sue Western nations who supported the Rebels for financial reparations to help pay for Syria’s recovery. Indeed, the United States government set the precedent for such a lawsuit when it successfully sued England over its support of Blockade runners like the Alabama. An arbitration tribunal met in 1872 and awarded $15.5 million for actual destruction of ships and cargo against Great Britain which was paid to the US in full.
One final observation is that the horrific images seen online from Syria and Egypt are a reminder how wretched civil wars can be. The American Civil War is often depicted through sanitized lenses of soldier reunions, commemorations and battle reenactments. As Stokesbury and other historians explain, the North “learned to hate” their southern countrymen and implemented all out war in 1864 and 1865. That hate brought about unimaginable bloodshed to both armies and horror to many southerners on the home front. The photographs from Syria and Egypt can serve as a tragic reminder that civil wars, despite when their occurrence in history are complicated and tragic events to be avoided at all costs.