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.
Hitler and Mussolini, who had not previously shown great interest in a military alliance, were drawn closer, laying the basis for the Axis. And the manifest weakness of the free nations encouraged both fascist dictators to behave more aggressively in the future, as our weakness in Syria has so greatly encouraged the Russian and Iranian dictators today.
The Spanish Civil War marked the first global appearance of the Great Appeasement Circus headed for the big tent at Munich. The Western nations dreaded another world war, and feared their involvement might trigger a broader conflict. They were undoubtedly right, but as in the global war today, once the big conflict was “on” there were only two exits: winning or losing. As today, the leaders of the free nations refused to see that the totalitarians were bound and determined to destroy the West, and that the only real question was when and where the West would have to fight them. Our leaders today are striving mightily to close their eyes and ears to the acts and words of war aimed at us from the new totalitarians of radical Islam and a revived pseudo-revolutionary Communism. Just as Spain offered a chance to humiliate Hitler and Mussolini, so Syria offers the chance to deliver a deadly blow to Putin and Khamenei. But no American leader seems to be listening to the chants of “Death to America” from Tehran to Caracas.
Barack Obama, say hello to Leon Blum.
Finally, we will no doubt draw some misleading lessons from the fighting in Syria. Certainly the major military strategists of the 1930s did. Both the French and the Russians wrongly concluded that tank warfare was a thing of the past, which rendered them vulnerable to Hitler’s Panzers a few years later. Obama now acts as if traditional military forces are a thing of the past, which may redound to our ruin in the future. If the Chinese come after us, it won’t be the asymmetrical assault of the jihadis, but something much bigger.
Remember your Marx: “Hegel says somewhere that all great world historic facts and personages occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
UPDATE: Two great minds working in unison! My friend and colleague, Emanuele Ottoloenghi, had the same thought and wrote it with his usual acuity:
Also read: The Iranian Stink On The Mess In Syria