Intervention in Syria: should we follow the lessons of the Spanish civil war?

In addressing the debate on the pros and cons of foreign intervention in Syria, there are many parallels that might be found between the Syrian situation and the dilemma faced several Western powers before the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell said that “the outcome of the war in Spain was decided outside of the country and one year afterwards, any realistic observer knew that the democratic government would not be able to win unless there was a radical change in the European situation.” The picture was complicated: firstly most states clung to the need to appease Hitler’s Germany, and at the same time, many had mixed feelings regarding the communist forces. Paradoxically, the ultimate goal was to avoid a general war in Europe with, like the Spanish war and the Syrian conflict, deeply ideological roots. The position of the international community in the conflict was finally based on the non-intervention principle, but this postulate was openly mocked by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, as well as by the Soviet Union, under the gaze and the impassive attitude of the so-called “democratic powers”. Hundreds of foreign volunteers (romantic and liberators as those that funded the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) fought in the ranks of both sides engaged in an ideological struggle between advocates of democratic government in Spain, with the support of the revolutionary left, and traditionalists autocratic General Francisco Franco, supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Germany and Italy, in fact, viewed the Spanish battlefield (especially the Basque town of Guernica that inspired Picasso, perhaps the precedent of Aleppo?) as a dress rehearsal for World War II.
In Syria, what began as a democratic uprising later became a civil war that has already lasted two years and has left behind him more than 100,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced inside the country and in neighboring states. One of the authors to study such parallelism was Michael Petrou in Maclean’s magazine, which states: “we were told that it was purely a Spanish conflict, civil war, whose outcome was to be decided by the Spaniards. That did not happen. The Democracies could not intervene, but other powers did“. With regard to Syria, the academic notes that “non-intervention is not an option, since there is already effective intervention. “Saying you are against intervention in Syria is like being in the middle of a snow storm and say that you are against snow“. Barry Rubin, U.S. expert, states a similar argument: “In many ways, the Syrian civil war is the Spanish Civil War of our time“. He also adds that what amounts to the Syrians rebels today were also incredibly diverse, including also “forces of evil”, and that is why many believe that the moderate elements deserve external support. The embargo imposed eighty years ago by the democratic powers did nothing to help, as has happened with the embargo imposed by European powers, raised a month ago (and yet still effective de facto) despite continuous pleas by the Syrian rebels. And, just like Assad, Franco was a boring colorless man, although relentless and cruel.
And intervention in Syria, which at first was a mere suspicion, is today a reality. On the one hand, intervention is personified by the Iranian regime and Hezbollah, which contribute with large amounts of money and weapons (and no small number of experienced fighters), as did Nazi Germany in aid to Franco’s forces. On the other hand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and even Turkey (supposedly, also the United States nowadays) also help the rebels, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, as the USSR did with the Communists in Spain. And, like many fear has happened in Syria, what began as a struggle to defend democracy in the end turned into a struggle within the Republican side, where the Soviet elements did at the same time repressed their noncommunist allies and confronted General Franco’s fascist army. When the war broke out, the Communists were the lesser force within the Spanish Republican coalition. While European democracies decided to leave their fate to the government of Manuel Azaña, the Soviet Union did not stop sending weapons and men in increasing proportion. In 1937, the Soviet NKVD and its communist allies even built secret prisons in Madrid in which they killed hundreds of political opponents amongst their supposed fellow antifascists.
At the same way, it is logical that the Salafists are gaining strength: they have been receiving money and support from the Gulf Arab states for two years, whilst the more moderate factions fighting Assad have received virtually nothing from the West. Well, that’s not true: they have been granted moral support. And perhaps also “non-lethal” help, vital when it comes to immobilize a tank or prevent the taking off a plane load of cluster bombs (sigh). In 1930, non-intervention weakened the Spanish Democratic card, and Western powers are nowadays making the same mistake with the Syrians, however disastrous the evolution of of the opposition in exile is proving to be. Many still advocate that the more moderate elements of the opposition are identified and provided with weapons they may need to survive and ultimately, even prevail. Syrian rebels have actually not requested the presence of foreign troops on the ground, and there are other far-reaching decisions, especially the no-fly zone, that could greatly help the rebels, who take the Libyan case as the key model. A negotiated peace is not imminent, and this all-out war will only end the moment one side is undoubtedly able to claim victory.
In Spain religion was an elementary factor. Spanish Catholics fought, roused by their priests, against a Republican – socialist and atheist – Government they considered as the “instrument of the devil”. Indeed, it is the growing weight of the ideological component which also allows us to draw parallels between the two conflicts. Fouad Ajami, a scholar of Lebanese origin who supported the U.S. intervention in Iraq, believes that “rancid hatred and cruelty practiced by both sides in Syria strongly evoke the growing hatred that was slowly infecting the entire country from 1936“. Insufficient external support has contributed greatly to the Syrian rebels’ growing identification with Islam, invoking Allah with increasing frequency – a definite sign of their loneliness they nowadays feel confronted with an international community that in 1945 paradoxically vowed to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.
Juan Goytisolo does not hesitate to point finger at the moral blindness of noninterventionist powers such as France and Britain, whose policy of appeasement in the 1930s was as ineffective as disastrous as what will happen in Syria in the near future. Whatever the circumstances, notes the Catalan writer, “the daily martyrdom of the Syrian people should not allow the international community to remain with its arms folded.” A famous phrase from George Santayana goes “Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it“, and Europe seems to have forgotten how it let its southern neighbor down, awash in blood and brotherly hatred.
There are also scholars who, however, reject any kind of parallelism between both conflicts. This is the case of Daniel Larison, according to whom “even if we accept the comparison to support the argument of the intervention, what is the U.S. interest in supporting the weaker party?” The historian Jeremy Salt, meanwhile , believes that the true parallelism lies in the determination of foreign powers to overthrow regimes that stand in their strategic interests: on the one hand, the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists in the 1930s, and Gulf autocracies today. Some believe that more care should be taken when analyzing the Syrian conflict, which can not be defined as a simple battle of good against evil: the Syrian regime is undoubtedly an evil to eradicate, but the rebels are a hodgepodge which also includes forces of evil. Western powers are also increasingly aware of the danger posed by the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood accumulate too much power. Besides, when providing assistance to all those who struggle against Assad, it can be extremely difficult to differentiate receptors and not ending up being deceived about it. The Syrian War seems at times to have become an exhibition match between two ideological rivals – Shiite and Sunni Islam, which seek to impose a totalitarian dictatorship, in which their groups can not coexist. A testing ground for conflicts to come, both in Syria and in the whole region. Then we find those who are positioned against the intervention relying on the serious error committed in Libya, where cities as Sirte were pulverized by British, French and Americans, Gaddafi was slaughtered, his supporters tortured and marginalized, and another broken country was added to the map of the Middle East.
Perhaps the wise words of George Orwell might again serve as an omen, “it would be much better to always remember the true history of the war in Spain as a perfect demonstration of stupidity and meanness on the part of powers. Truly nothing can be saved from this story, except for the value of the combatants on both sides and the civilians’ strength on the Republican side, who for years endured hunger and difficulties unknown to us in the worst moments of this war. “

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