Netanyahu, Syria and the Spanish Civil War

As the UN and the US cosy up to Iran and allow Assad to stay in power, Israel’s leader will go his own way to save his country

While waiting to hear Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s much anticipated UN speech in September, I read a brilliant essay, “Islamists Assemble”, by Michael Weiss on the news website Now Lebanon. His subject was the splintering of Syria’s fractious opposition and the coming internecine battle between Bashar al-Assad’s enemies, amid fading hopes that President Obama’s promise of red lines and hints that “Assad must go” meant anything much.

Much has been made of the fractious nature of the Syrian rebels — the bewildering number of names and groups fighting on different fronts; the atrocities some of them have committed; the reported acts of ethnic cleansing; the public beheading of pro-regime fighters and soldiers. Weiss drew a vivid picture of the galaxy of Islamist groups vying for supremacy as they fight the regime, fight Christians, Kurds and Alawites, and fight among themselves.

Suddenly, I was reminded of Camillo Berneri, a youthful obsession of my university days. Berneri was an Italian anarchist and intellectual who lived a tumultuous life in the interwar period and mixed with the leading Italian anti-Fascist thinkers of his generation-Piero Gobetti, the Rosselli brothers and Ernesto Rossi. 

His writing style was terse and clear. His knowledge was encyclopaedic. He had studied with Gaetano Salvemini, the great Italian historian who eventually migrated to the United States to escape fascism and taught at Harvard.

Berneri lived in exile, mostly in Paris, though he was periodically arrested and expelled for agitating and plotting with other anarchists. He was an undesirable, yet a towering figure among exiled intellectuals and anti-fascist activists. And like so many of his generation, he was gripped by the ideological fervour — and fractiousness — of socialism and its many splinters.

What Berneri had to do with Syria becomes evident when one looks at his untimely death. Like so many other young European leftists of his time, Berneri rallied to the cause of Republican Spain in the aftermath of General Franco’s uprising against the Popular Front government. And like many of his comrades, he was felled by the bullets of an opponent from his own ideological galaxy. Berneri died in Barcelona, in 1937, shot by the local Stalinist police, not killed by the fascists. Others would meet a similar fate. 

That was the part of Spain’s Civil War history that resonated with Weiss’s piece on Syria.

The Popular Front splintered. The glue of anti-fascism was not strong enough to overcome the animosity that divided Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin and their successors. They turned against one another. Democracies looked on. Fascism won. Could that be Syria’s fate? As the Syrian rebels splinter, unable to overcome their differences to achieve the common goal of toppling Assad, democracies have assumed the role of bystanders. Fearful of an al-Qaeda victory, they may let Assad win, come what may.

Earlier this year, in the pages of Standpoint, I addressed the analogies between the Syria conundrum and the Spanish Civil War. But they deserve more scrutiny because of the sudden turn of events in Syria in September, and the likely rapprochement between the US and Iran after Rouhani’s visit to New York.

Less than a year into the Spanish Civil War, German and Italian warplanes bombed the town of Guernica in the Basque region. The wanton slaughter of civilians was a harbinger of the Nazi total war that would engulf Europe two years later. The suffering of Guernica was immortalised by Picasso’s homonymous painting, which toured the world shortly after its completion drawing public attention to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The painting, now in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, is a symbol of all anti-war causes. And like many other such testimonials, it failed to move the world’s conscience to act. If anything, it scared Western audiences into appeasement — for as long as they could sacrifice someone else’s future to Hitler’s appetites, diplomacy was preferable to conflict.

Look at Guernica then, but think of Assad’s ruthless chemical weapons assault on his own citizens in August in Damascus’s eastern suburbs. Assad is still there — his crime will go unpunished and his patrons have now been dignified with an indispensable role in finding a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict.

Speaking of analogies, Berneri’s writings on Nazism and fascism show a moral clarity of judgment that today appears like a foregone conclusion but that was by no means obvious back in his time, even among sincere democrats. For say what you want about the Spanish Civil War and the brutality on both sides of its ideological divide, the fact is that the Western democracies stood aside, believing that, distasteful as it was that Franco enjoyed the backing of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the possibility of a Communist takeover was infinitely worse.

And what for? In the end, even those who viewed Spanish Republicans as Stalin’s proxies and thus unworthy of support had to align themselves with Stalin after June 1941 to fight a bigger threat. Not that Communism was harmless — it was not — but the red scare blinded many to the fact that fascism was no less evil until it was too late. Picking a side was no doubt distasteful — but being a bystander in the face of multiple evils is never a good choice either. Letting two opposite evils determine the course of events guarantees a terrible outcome.

Today Syria is turning into a similar struggle between Sunni radicalism and Iran’s proxies. Historical analogies should never be pushed too far-neither side fits neatly the paradigm of Franco and the Popular Front. But there are important lessons to be learned from the Spanish Civil War. One is that Nazi Germany and fascist Italy read Western indifference as defeatism. The absence of consequences for their brazen actions helped to set the stage for the much larger conflagration that followed only a few months after Franco’s victory in 1939.

Western indifference to human suffering and the impunity with which they were allowed to commit widespread atrocities also convinced the Nazi and fascist regimes that they could murder on a grand scale and get away with it. It is hard to believe that Assad and his Iranian patrons are drawing any other conclusion from the cowardly pretexts Western leaders are invoking to avoid any kind of interference in the Syrian arena.

There is another element that harks back to the Spanish conflict which offers a sobering lesson for Israel, as the world warms to Iran even as it sends thousands of trained fighters to Syria to support a dictator who has gassed his own people.

Two remarkable essays by Berneri come to mind — a 1934 essay entitled “Against the Racist Delirium” and a 1935 booklet entitled “The anti-Semitic Jew”. Both works are sketchy — they were written in exile, without the benefit of a proper library to consult. Thus they read more like drafts of a more substantial project, especially the latter, which delves into the question of why some Jews turn against their own people, helping in the process to foment anti-Semitism. But the essays are insightful — and morally uncompromising. At a time when Nazi anti-Semitism was being met across Europe with only mild disapproval at best, Berneri described it for what it was — a vile and violent delirium. As for the Jewish turncoats whom he studied in his 1935 essay, suffice to mention Berneri’s opening remark: “The death of an anti-Semite is one of those things that uplifts my heart.”

At the time, anti-Semitism, so central to Nazi ideology, was summarily dismissed, played down, or at most considered a mere embarrassment —as long as it threatened Jews alone. Although Berneri  was by no means alone in sounding the alarm against Nazi anti-Semitism early on, he was swimming against the current and pointing an accusing finger at that very aspect of Nazism that people found least distasteful because of their own prejudices. His words  thus fell on deaf ears. But they were prescient nonetheless.

Eventually, he was proved right. Stopping Nazism early on would have spared Europe tens of millions of victims and widespread destruction. Rushing to the rescue of Spain’s beleaguered Republican government in 1936, nipping fascist aggression in the bud, might have yielded different results. For example, it might have tamed Hitler’s expansionism. But Hitler’s brutality in Spain only fuelled the appetite for appeasement in Europe, and when he demanded the Sudetenland for Germany, the two great Western powers of the day — France and Great Britain — sold the young and fragile republic of Czechoslovakia down the river. Not invited to the Munich conference that sealed their fate, the Czechoslovaks were told that, were they to reject the deal, they would be left to fend off Nazi Germany by themselves.

As Western powers sit with Russia and China in Geneva to negotiate with Iran, is it so hard to see history repeating itself?

I was thinking all this as Rouhani stood at the UN podium in New York and in the days that followed, until Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke from the same platform.

The parallels with Spain are clear. The virulent hatred of Tehran’s rulers against the Jewish state is being played down. Witness how Rouhani’s elusive answers about Holocaust denial were greeted with enthusiasm by a swooning media all too eager to put the Ahmadinejad years behind them. It is as if everything else that Iran does could somehow be made acceptable by a sudden reduction of its anti-Semitic rhetoric. 

Yet it is hard for Netanyahu to get his facts past his audiences — nobody among Western pundits and policymakers has much sympathy for him. They find him distasteful on account of his country’s existence, or its policies, or its refusal to make concessions that could jeopardise its security. 

The New York Times called him “shrill”. His denunciations of Iran elicited yawns. His demand for zero-enrichment — which, by the way, is nothing more than what six Chapter VII UN Security Council resolutions demand of Iran’s regime — is being dismissed across the board as “unrealistic”.

Netanyahu is a party pooper. And his warnings will not be heeded. Negotiations, which recommenced in Geneva on October 15, will probably be the prelude to broader Iranian-American engagement addressing other regional problems, where Iran’s “legitimate demands” will be taken into account. While Iran will be invited to the table for negotiations on Syria, Afghanistan, the Gulf, WMDs and regional security, Israel will be kept at bay, with America’s reassurance that the Jewish state’s interests will never be compromised as the only guarantee Israel can rely on.

If Netanyahu knows about one thing, it is history. He is keenly aware that, despite all the shortcomings of historical analogies, a fate similar to the one of Czechoslovakia in 1938 is a distinct possibility. America, after all, promised it would never tolerate Assad’s use of chemical weapons — and failed to live up to its promise. America intimated that Assad had to go — but America walked away from its warnings when Assad hunkered down and rode out the storm. Why would America’s guarantees to Israel be anything more than “covenants without a sword”, which, in Thomas Hobbes’s immortal phrase, “are nothing but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all”?

Some 120,000 people have died in 30 months of civil war in     Syria. Almost half the country’s people have been turned into refugees. The entire region could implode. Western intervention is not on the cards. A cruel regime is backed by stronger and more rapacious patrons who aspire to rule the region. America, its European allies and the international community will not confront them. They will sit down with them and negotiate — and because Netanyahu is not that good in their eyes, he has been made the enemy of the perfect deal, which, like Munich in 1938, will only delay war, not prevent it.

There is one difference. Netanyahu, unlike Milan Hodza, the Czechoslovak Prime Minister in 1938 who was told to accept Munich or face Nazi Germany alone, has prepared for the eventuality of being sold down the river. Speaking at the UN, Netanyahu said: “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.” Unlike Czechoslovakia in 1938, Israel has the capability to act alone — and its threats have never been empty.

Maybe diplomacy will stop Iran’s march towards nuclear weapons. Maybe Iran, after all, is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Maybe Rouhani’s charm is not just an offensive. Maybe Assad is better than al-Qaeda. But none of this means that acquiescing in a dictator who has gassed his own people will bring good into the world. Or that just because warnings are being issued by Israel’s prime minister — whose motives are self-serving after all, since he wishes to save his country from possible annihilation — we should discount them.

Berneri’s era offers a lesson for the present. In 1936, the West abandoned Spain’s Popular Front and left it to fend for itself because its friends and backers were a distasteful bunch. The lack of resolve over Spain cemented the appeasement mood and emboldened Nazi Germany. The rest, as they say, is history. We should try to learn. But I doubt anyone ever will.

After all, in his April 2012 speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., President Obama very compellingly said: “We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen — because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts, and because so many others stood silent.” He went on to list all that his administration would do with respect to Syria “so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet”.

But as the US prepares to sit down and negotiate with the new Iranian president, it seems that those words, like so many solemn promises to stand up to evil before, have been forgotten. After all, the US too succumbed to the urge to be a bystander when people were gassed to death in Syria. Those who stuck with Assad, it turns out, made a winning bet after all.

That is why Netanyahu is left to stand alone — his isolation a sign that the urge to avert our gaze from evil always prevails. And ultimately that, rather than a genuine desire to turn the page, is why Rouhani is smiling.

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