Lessons From History

In Syria, as in the Spanish Civil War, the West is depriving itself of the chance to influence the outcome

Points East & West

When, in 1936, the Fascists rose against the Spanish Republic, the international community was split as it is today over Syria. And as the civil war rages in Syria, echoes of Spain reverberate throughout the Levant. They are ominous, regardless of historical differences — for as opposite extremes clash, Western democracies have yet again chosen to take no stand, and let the forces of moderation be crushed by their mightier and more cruel opponents. 

Our exercise in self-sidelining is as myopic as it was in the 1930s. Unless there are no winners, we will be left to deal with the consequences of either regime survival — an Iranian victory — or a jihadi-dominated new order — a Western defeat. 

We will no doubt protest that a third option was tenuous at best, rather than asking ourselves what could have been done to make it viable. By then, it will be too late — because, much as in 1936, our conviction is weaker than that of our adversaries. They know what they want and they are ready to pay the price. We don’t — and we would prefer it if the UN paid the bill.

Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sided with their ideological next-of-kin, the Spanish Falange. For them, turning Spain into an integral part of the incipient Axis offered a number of advantages, including testing the resolve of their adversaries. Though Russia and Iran are siding with Bashar al-Assad’s regime rather than with the rebels, their role is much the same — and they are not sparing any effort.

 Iran did not hesitate to back Assad’s killing machine with the full weight of financial support, weapons supplies and boots on the ground — both directly with the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces and indirectly through the deployment of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.

The Soviet Union, for its part, sided in 1936 with the Communist faction of the Popular Front then ruling the fledgling republic — again, for obvious reasons, Communism came to the rescue of its ideological kith and kin.

Today’s equivalent in the Syrian theatre is the loose Sunni Islamic coalition of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose funding and weaponry go to the 21st-century Syrian version of the International Brigades — the local jihadi chapters.

In 1936, Western democracies largely stood on the sidelines, paralysed by a prolonged and harsh economic crisis but also by, first, their delusional commitment to preserving the status quo and then, once the civil war began to take its toll, because they would eventually have to choose between bad and worse. 

With caveats, today’s situation is not much better. Rather than helping more moderate forces organise and arm themselves under Western air cover, the West gave the role of choosing whom to support to a megalomaniac Islamist, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The result — surprise! — is that Kurds and liberals were sidelined in favour of Muslim Brotherhood types.

Spanish Republicans, left to their own devices, relied heavily on Moscow’s military aid and the enthusiastic influx of the International Brigades — a volunteer army raised chiefly, though not exclusively, by European Communist parties. Syria’s beleaguered opposition is bleeding influence, similarly, to Jabhat-al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda loyalists who, with military and financial support from Gulf Wahhabis, are giving grief to loyalist forces.

If they win it will be ugly. If they lose it may be worse. Our early excuse for non-intervention — namely, that support for opposition forces would boost Sunni jihadis, an enemy even worse than Syria’s dictatorship — turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Much as in the Spanish Civil War, moderate forces that were neither Fascist nor Communist may have been weak and fragmented. Lack of support for them did nothing to strengthen their case when it might have done, while massive support from Fascist regimes on one side and Communist parties on the other made sure that the eventual outcome would be a choice between two equally worst-case scenarios.

Just as in 1939, when the Nazi- and Fascist-backed victory of General Franco and his Nationalist Falange was the prelude to a regional war that eventually engulfed the entire world, a victory for Assad, backed by  Iran and Russia, will persuade his sponsors that their adversaries are a paper tiger — with all the attendant consequences. Western democracies have, yet again, made the perfect the enemy of the good.

By choosing not to take sides — or by limiting its intervention to small arms supplies — the West is depriving itself of the chance to influence the final outcome of the war. And whatever that outcome is, our stance will harm us in the long run.