History may not quite repeat itself, but the war in Syria — invariably, “the Syrian Civil War” — is eerily similar to the “Spanish Civil War” in the mid-1930s. The latter started as an internal conflict, as did Syria, and then sucked in the major powers, including Great Britain, France, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Syrian war features active intervention from Russia and Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar, and increasingly busy action is en route from Great Britain, France, and the United States.
Like the Syrian war, the Spanish Civil War was terribly bloody. As in Syria today, it was sometimes difficult to figure out who was fighting whom, as internal ideological and political divisions were intense (in Spain, these were particularly pronounced on the Left between Communists, Anarchists, and Trotskyites; today in Syria jihadists slaughter each other, boisterously among Sunnis and Shi’ites, and sometimes within the ethnic groups). Weapons, including chemical weapons and new anti-tank guns, were deployed and evaluated. Spain famously provided a testing ground for military tactics and strategy — the Blitzkrieg made its first appearance there. All in all, Spain prefigured the Second World War.
The winners in Spain were Franco, the right-wing Falange Movement of Jose Antonio Primo di Rivera (killed during the war), and their foreign Nazi and fascist allies. The losers were the forces of the Left, and thus Stalin. Both then and now, partisans of the Left have argued that a more vigorous support of their forces could and should have produced a different outcome. That may be true, but things are not so simple. If you read George Orwell’s masterpiece on the war, Homage to Catalonia, you will find that Stalin was not very enthusiastic about a victory by “revolutionaries” who embraced a Communist doctrine quite different from his: “The thing for which the Communists were working was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time, but to make sure it never happened.”
The same counterintuitive divisions exist today within the ranks of the Syrian opposition, with the same deleterious consequences for their “cause.” The Muslim Brothers are, so to speak, the Stalinists of the struggle, and they have taken over political control from the more spontaneous elements that emerged from the fission within the Syrian Army. The Brothers do not want to see their Islamist enemies — the Salafists, for example, or al-Qaeda — win the war and rule Syria. Meanwhile, just as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were determined to win at all costs, so Putin, Assad, and Khamenei are concerned only with slaughtering everyone on “the other side” and keeping the regime in Damascus in power.
Meanwhile, the free nations of the West that should have been concerned about a Hitler/Mussolini victory in Spain largely stayed out of it. And so Spain truly became a dry run for the bigger war ahead. The French and British dithered, and everyone signed an agreement to stay out, and impose an arms embargo on all fighters. The Germans and Italians quickly entered the fray, but the Brits, French, and Americans honored the agreement.
Hugh Thomas, the author of one of the first scholarly books on the Spanish war, wrote that once the Nazis and fascists were in, “it was very cynical (for Britain) to insist on (maintenance of the non-intervention pact).” Furthermore, the fateful pattern of appeasement had been drawn: “This cynicism brought the British Government as little credit as it did advantage.”
Ditto for “leading with the behind” in Syria.