On 16 August 1860, a French expeditionary force landed in Beirut. According to Napoleon III, the French military were going to "restore order" in Syria, then an Ottoman province. Regarded today as the first example of "the right to intervene on humanitarian grounds", the military intervention actually served to increase France’s economic stranglehold in the region.

A humanitarian intervention in Syria
is recurrently demanded; it should put an
end to the suffering which the population
has been exposed to since 2011 due to
the struggles between the regime and the
armed opposition. The main responsibility for these fights is attributed – rightly or
wrongly – to the government.

So, this relief effort would involve overthrowing the
current regime. It is suspected to have indirectly started several months ago, when
the insurgents were armed and also agents
and foreign troops were deployed into the
area. However, the use of force on the territory of a foreign country without the
consent of the competent authorities contradicts the principle of state sovereignty
enshrined in the UN Charter. Use of force
between states is prohibited with the exception of the case of legitimate defense
or a joint action decided by the Security

The International Court of Justice has condemned the military support,
which the Reagan administration gave to
the insurgent Nicaraguan Contras, struggling to overthrow the Sandinista government in 1986. The Court of Justice had
even specified that such support was not
suitable to secure the respect for human
rights, even though Washington accused
the regime of having committed atrocities.

These legal obstacles have not prevented a unilateral practice from developing,
officially reasoned with altruistic motives,
as for example the bombing of former Yugoslavia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999,
or the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The most
recent example in this series represents
the action in Libya in 2011, where some
States have admitted that it went far beyond the means the Security Council’s
resolution of 1973 had admitted.

On 17 November 2012, French President François Hollande received at the Elysée Palace the president of the "National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces," concocted ​​in Doha less than a week before. Despite its extendable name, this new brainchild of the West and the Gulf monarchies is incapable of unifying the opposition, but its existence has been used to justify the release of 1.2 million euros in the name of "emergency humanitarian aid." And military career men are part and parcel of the panorama.

A norm
of higher, universal type is cited as justification for these unilateral interventions: the obligation to protect the life of
any population against oppressive massive
threats. But this principle, perfectly legitimate in itself, depends exclusively on the
goodwill of the intervening. How can you
make sure that somebody uses this arrogated, immense power and uses violence
against another State to pursue other reprehensible targets? The history is full of
“just” wars, which turned out very badly
for the affected populations. The great jurist from Neuchâtel, Emer de Vattel, had
already condemned the subjugation of the
Indians of America by the conquistadores
in 1758. This subjugation was also done
under the pretext of freeing them from tyrants.

The experts in this question were always looking out for a precedent, showing that an intervening power led such an
action in an irreproachable style. For long
they believed to have found it in the expedition carried out in 1860, which concerned the Ottoman province of Syria,
also including the area of today’s Lebanon. From May to August 1860 between
17,000 and 23,000 people, most of them
of Christian faith, were massacred in the
mountains of Lebanon and Damascus in
battles that took place between different
tribal communities. When this message arrived in Europe it raised a public shock.
The Ottoman authorities were accused of
having encouraged the abuse of power by
the Druze militias in the Lebanon Mountains and by the insurgents in Damascus;
they were even accused of having lent a

Napoleon III decided to send an expedition corps of 6,000 men on site to put
an end to the “carnage”, and with the approval of the other European powers. The
French troops stayed in the area for less
than a year. After peace had returned and
they had reorganized the authorities which
resulted in maintaining civil peace up to
the First World War, they withdrew. Still
today some lawyers who are totally opposed to the right to humanitarian intervention, concede that this action in 1860
has perhaps been the only “real” humanitarian intervention of the 19

Looking closer, however, the disputes
that erupted between the various communities in 1860 had also been fomented by
the “clientelism” practiced by the European powers towards the local minorities at
that time. It should be noted here that huge
interests were at stake. They concerned
the distribution of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, which was bitterly disputed among the major powers of Europe.
Syria is located at the strategically important road to India, the jewel of the British
Kingdom. France did not hide its interest
in this area that promises many opportunities for trade. Russia had already sought to
extend its territory to the South for long.
To reach their aims, everyone based on a
local community, which he exploited: the
French were protectors of the Catholics;
the Russians defended the Orthodox, the
British acted as a sponsor of the Druze.

During the period following the intervention of 1860, France extended its economic influence on Lebanon so much
that 50% of the active Lebanese population were working in the French silk production in 1914. This whole sector of the
economy perished when the French industry decided to give up the Lebanese suppliers. As a result they lost their basis of

A year later, in 1915, the British and
French allies organized the blockade of
the Syrian coasts by preventing food deliveries for this region into the country,
which was highly dependent on grain imports, the aim was to encourage the Arab
provinces to rise against the Central Government in Istanbul, which was an ally of
Germany’s Wilhelm II in the First World
War. The result was an unprecedented
famine: 200,000 deaths in the Centre and
in the North of the Lebanon Mountains
and 300,000 in the rest of Syria.

As early as in 1840, François Guizot,
former ambassador of France in London,
had summed up the geopolitical considerations prevailing in the European courts,
which in his eyes followed the policy of
the British foreign minister Lord Palmerston, as follows: “There, in the depth of
any valley, on top of any mountain in the
Lebanon Mountains, there are husbands,
women, children, who love each other,
who enjoy life and who will be massacred tomorrow, because Lord Palmerston,
while travelling on the train from London
to Southampton, will have said to himself: ‘Syria must rise, I need an uprising
in Syria, if Syria does not rise, I am a

Source: Le Temps of 6 November 2012.
(Translation Current Concerns)