The Spanish Civil War as a historical precedent for Syria
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” -G. Santayana
As the conscious thinker reflects on the geo-political situation in the world, he must always use historical perspective to color his thoughts. The uninitiated rarely understand that decisions in political capitals far away do directly affect their lives. That global leader decisions do eventually manifest in lives of the common man. That Political, Military, Economic, and Social destabilization which seems to be accelerating, will affect us all. The conscious man can prepare and anticipate when the waves that start on foreign shores impact on our lives. Fortune has always favored the prepared mind.
We face multiple historical parallels between the interwar period and the current global state of affairs. In particular the event which started everything on both timelines is the Great Depression (1929) and the Great Recession (2008). Both of these events were massive economic downturns exacerbated by pseudo-socialist economic policies of the left. The political reluctance to “suffer the hangover” and follow Keynesian economic polices instead, is putting the globe on the exact same path of the 1930’s.
There is a rarely covered event from 1936 to 1939 that was the direct precursor to World War II. This is the Spanish Civil War. The similarities to Syria, while not a perfect match, in my opinion are striking. In the Spanish Civil War there was political suppression that led to rebellion. Reprisals and atrocities against unarmed combatants. International volunteers to fight on the side of the “oppressed”. This was followed by massive majorities of the global powers fighting by proxy. Most importantly the western democracies, whose feeble leaders typified by Neville Chamberlain, acted without conviction or courage. This unprincipled leadership emboldened aggression. By showing a lack of courage with halfhearted measures exacerbated the suffering, but then they compounded the damage by offering strategic concessions to the aggressors.
In this article, I will layout how the situation is very similar to our current involvement in Syria. Although simplified, the players in the Spanish Civil War have very similar modern representatives in Syria. That things are unfolding in a way that is eerily similar to the Spanish Civil War. That we need to recognize that emboldened aggressors, and weak western leadership, may very well plunge us into the same abyss of 1939-1945.
The Republicans who contrary to modern American Republicans, were socialists, leftists and progressives. A formative violent suppression by the ruling class against a workers’ rebellion in 1934 fostered dissent that was the base of Republican power. In February of 1936 they formed the Popular Front which promised large scale reforms in contrast to the will of the Spanish land owners, who exerted disproportionate control. The Republicans represented the majority of the population and were very cohesive in ideology. Although they were different groups and factions, they all wanted the old order of the Spanish hierarchy gone.
The Sunni based insurgent groups are the modern equivalent of the Republicans. In this group is also the Kurds and Free Syrian Army groups. Strategically they strive to overthrow the Syrian government or annex portions of Syrian territory. This key goal among these groups is why they are aligned. All of them want the Assad Government gone. The Sunni groups mostly came together after a violent suppression of their political aims by the Assad regime. Although the Sunni groups are aligned, they have dramatically different end states in mind. They are very different groups individually and are often fighting each other. This fighting is common between break away Syrian Army elements and the Al-Nusura Front, also ISIS and the Kurds are commonly fighting each other. But all of these elements are anti Shia and anti-Assad, this is what binds them. They are supported by the United States, EU, Turkey, Sunni nations, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Nationalists were the wealthy Spanish landowners, the military establishment, the business class, bound by the common thread of the Catholic Church. In the have’s and have not’s, the Nationalists were the have’s. Spain was a country were wealth disparity was steadily growing. The Nationalist controlled all aspects of society. From education to the economy the nationalists set policy, and with the military at their back, they acted with impunity. They were led by General Franco.
The Assad Regime is the modern equivalent of the Nationalists. They are in effect are the mirror image of the role the Nationalist played in Spain. They control everything in Syria and have going back several generations. The Alawite minority has ruled over the Sunni majority with minimal Sunni representation. Many of the smaller ethnic minorities also supported the Assad regime as they feared the Sunni majority. The Assad Regime is also supported by Hezbollah and Shia based groups to include the Iranian Government. Most importantly the Assad regime is backed by Russia. The Russians view Syria like the United States views Israel, their primary ally in the Middle East.
Germany found in the Spanish Nationalists an opportunity to support another group of authoritarians. While not a national socialist regime like the Germans, the Nationalists were led by General Franco. The military strongman that Hitler saw himself as was reflected in General Franco. The Germans also were in the military buildup prior to World War II. This was an opportunity to get their forces directly and indirectly involved in combat operations. This was to provide critical military operational experience to the German military. Strategically, this gave the Germans the opportunity to test the will and resolve of the western powers.
Russia plays a very similar role to the Germans. Putin is a far smarter and experienced leader than Hitler. He also lacks the psychological disorders of a genocidal egomaniac. Their support of the Assad regime is historical in nature. I often describe Syria is to Russia as Israel is the United States. The Russians have supported Syria for well over 50 years. The Russians, much like the Germans in Spain, have already provided financial, logistical, advisory, and combat support to the Syrians. Like the Germans, the Russians are using the Syrian situation to test the resolve of the western powers.
Western Powers this group of countries are the same now as in the 1930’s. In the 1930’s this group of countries which included Great Britain, France, Mexico, and to a smaller degree the United States. These countries openly supported the democratically elected socialist Spanish Republican movement. They were also literary, social, and volunteer movements within these countries that actively supported the plight of the Spanish Republicans. Then as now, these countries support the democratic aims of the people. One key element is that in 1930’s Great Britian was the global power led by Neville Chamberlain. Now the United States is the global power led by Barack Obama. The parallels between the countries and their leaders is strikingly similar.
Global Environment there are also very striking similarities between the global situation in the 1930’s and the 2010’s. Then as now the global economy had yet to recover from a global economic crash. The Great Depression which started on Black Monday in October 1929 is mirror for the current “Great Recession” of 2008. Then as now, Keynesian economic policies mixed with a lack of political leadership created a lasting malaise. Politically in the Western Powers, then as now, there is a reluctance to engage in military actions needed to prevent expanding violence. Then as now, belligerent nations are forming formidable military powers in Asia and Europe in the face of the Western Powers projecting weakness.
The Genesis of Genocide
The Spanish Civil war started in earnest when the Republicans we democratically elected. There were multiple events that led up to the election, such as violent suppression of labor movements, and economic troubles. General Franco led the most notorious of these in Asturias. There continued to be governmental mismanagement and strife that eventually resulted in the Republicans taking control in February 1936. There were many rumors that the Republicans were going to take retaliatory actions against the nationalists. By July of 1936 Nationalist military leaders had rebelled but failed to consolidate power. Both sides rapidly consolidated power in their respective regions.
The Syrian Civil War started when the underrepresented Sunni groups were protesting for reforms, Assad responded with violent suppression. Soon thereafter Sunni groups broke away from the military and formed the Free Syrian Army and other Sunni Groups. Many of these Sunni groups end up becoming elements within ISIS and the Al-Nusra front. Like the Republicans in Spain, they were a coalition of groups that were consolidated on removing the historical power structure. The Alwiates, Shia, and other minority groups consolidated on the other side. These minorities have long feared the Sunni majority.
Elements within all of these groups have shown little reservation in conducting combat operations without the slightest regard to civilian casualties. In many cases savage treatment of the enemy and civilians is the preferred technique. ISIS is willing to execute, rape, and torture anyone. Not to be outdone the Assad regime uses all types of weapons on targets without civilian considerations. The “Barrel Bombs” being dropped into neighborhoods or the devastation being levied against Aleppo, are primary examples.
The Spanish Civil War had its fair share of suppression of populations, executions, and the overt targeting of civilian populations. In Spain there were constant attacks on non-combatants and execution of prisoners by both sides. The nationalists estimated 1 million people were killed in the fighting. Current estimates are that 250,000 to 500,000 people have died so far in Syria.
How The Foreign Powers Got Involved
In Spain, when the Nationalists revolt stalled outside of Madrid, fighting became a static battle of attrition. The Nationalists realized they were outnumbered and did not have control of national assets. They needed external support. Franco being a General he found very willing support in National Socialist powers Germany and Italy. Hitler and Mussolini both fashioned themselves as militant leaders. In Franco they saw a mirror image of themselves. More importantly, they saw an opportunity to test new military technologies and techniques. They would be able to refine tactics and equipment prior to their expansionary adventures. In particular they would have an opportunity to fight against Soviet and British supported forces. The two nations primarily targeted in Germany’s expansion.
The Republicans soon found themselves facing German and Italian equipment and even troops supporting the Nationalists. They instantly reached out to foreign powers as well. The Soviets and Western powers instantly offered their support. While the Soviets were willing to offer weapons and equipment, the Western powers, led by the United Kingdom, offered various lower levels of support. In particular the United Kingdom, who was fully committed to the policy of appeasement, their lack of support reinforced Hitler’s opinion of the British weakness. Many people did volunteer from the western powers to fight for the Republicans.
In Syria, like the Spanish Republicans, The Sunni groups are not only indigenous Syrians, but also international volunteers to fight on their behalf. Groups like the Kurds, Free Syrian Army, and ISIS are bolstered by foreign fighters. In particular the Sunni groups are funded, equipped, and armed by Sunni nations and the United States.
How Situations Escalate
In the Spanish Civil war at certain times, many of the nations did get directly involved. This applies mostly to the Germans, but the others to some degree get involved. In Syria today, the Russians are very directly involved in combat operations supporting the Assad regime. These escalations are a direct result of the supported faction losing ground and the supporting nation having to make up the capability gaps. It was very routine for the Germans, their air force in particular, to engage in direct combat operations. In the Spanish Civil War, the Western powers, and Russia to a lesser degree, knew that having combat forces directly engaged was a recipe for disaster. They did their best to have no direct engagement with German or Italian troops. With World War I a recent memory, the Western powers were very reluctant to get directly involved.
This is one of the stark differences between the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War. The western powers now are keen to have direct combat engagement. Our level of direct involvement with Sunni forces and its duration will not be discussed here. But, what I will say is that when you have opposing armed forces augmenting the proxy forces fighting each other, it is a recipe for disaster. How will the Russains escalate their posture when a F18 drops a JDAM on an Assad military unit that has embedded Spetnaz. How will the President Obama and possibly Hillary Clinton as she will escalate his policies, act when bodies of Green Berets or Navy SEALs are shipped home. We have advisors embedded with Free Syrian Army units. The same kind of units that are being bombed by Russian SU-24’s. Every day there are close calls between Russian and NATO forces.
President Obamas calls to bomb the Syrian Air Force should be a cause for great alarm for its recklessness. The Syrian Air Force uses the exact same aircraft as the Russian Air Force, and they are co-located on the same bases. One mistake and he will have just started World War III. This would end up being a war without clearly defined strategic goals. Against and enemy who has been rapidly advancing its C3I, small arms, doctrine, and Air Defense systems. Other than advancing a recently accelerated support for Sunni nations and their strategic goals, there is no foreseeable positive strategic end state for even a limited conventional engagement with the Russian military.
When the Western Powers Balked
During the Spanish Civil War, once Germany and Italy got involved, the tide of battle shifted in the Nationalists favor. With the Luftwaffe and German Falschrimjagers taking on active roles in the fighting the Republicans were steadily being driven back. The Soviets still were very supportive with equipment. The Western Powers supported with volunteers and political support. But it eventually became apparent that without direct support that the republicans were going to lose. Neville Chamberlain utterly failed to recognize that the Germans saw Spain as nothing else other than a dry run to practice their combat techniques. The Germans also saw it as an opportunity to gauge the resolve of the Western Powers and the Soviets.
Hitler clearly recognized that the Western Powers lacked actual political fortitude for combat. That his primary adversary was going to be the Soviets. The Spanish Civil War made this very clear.
The same thing is happening right now. President Obama has shown the lack of resolve in any combat operations unless it supports a Sunni objective. The United State has shown it will fire cruise missiles at Houthi rebels, bomb Assad’s troops, and overthrow Q’uaddafi. The United States and the Western Powers failed to act in the Ukraine. This was clearly telegraphed by Obama’s the amateur red line in Syria comment. The making of a threat, without the slightest indication of the resolve to follow it through, green lighted the Unconventional Warfare campaign to seize the Crimea.
Barack Obama, just like Neville Chamberlain is clearly projecting a lack of consistency, clarity, and resolve. His geo-political ineptitude is frequently outmaneuvered and often blatantly disregarded by belligerents. The Ukraine today is like the Sudetenland of the 1930’s, an example of just how far a belligerent can go without an effective response. Then as now, the west projects weakness. Weakness invites further aggression.
How the Spanish Civil War set the conditions for World War II
The weakness projected by the west during the Spanish Civil War laid the foundation for World War II. There were considerable displays of appeasement by the Western Powers. They started by surrendering the other territories without cost or consequence. These were attempts to get the Germans in particular, to stop supporting Franco and the Nationalists in Spain. Germany never stopped their efforts and basically got two for one. They had shifted the balance of power in Spain so that Franco would win. Then they were given other concessions to stop supporting an effort effectively assured of victory.
This steeled Hitler’s opinion that the Western Powers were foolish and weak. He could then focus his efforts on the Soviets as they had actually shown some resolve in Spain. Hitler always looked at the Soviets as his primary enemy. This assessment was accurate, the Western Powers were shown to be ineffective in the Spring of 1940, while the Soviets slugged it out with the Germans for 6 years.
The Western Powers, who held significant military advantages, showed they lacked resolve, and could be fractured. Instead of forcing the Germans and Nationalists to the bargaining table, their half measures resulted in green lighting Hitler’s genocidal rampage across Europe.
Today in Syria we face the exact same scenario. We can accelerate our combat efforts and risk a limited to all-out war with Russia. It is also pretty clear there is no really good foreseeable outcome in combat operations against Russia. We could do what the Western Powers did, appease then withdrawal. This is almost certain an invitation for further aggression. When viewed in the light of the Sunni vs. Shia split, Western Powers withdrawing would result in a destabilization that would result in a regional war that would have global consequences. In my opinion, the only way forward is to get the Sunni and Shia factions, nations, and supporters to the table. The United States and Russia would act as brokers of the deal. While this outcome would most likely destroy the old Sykes-Picot framework that has been the foundation of the region. It is time to recognize the Middle East is not, nor ever has been, based on British colonial constructs. That only by rearranging the region based on their belief systems is the only answer to the regional woes. Any other answer leads to war and history is clearly telling us this.