by Tom Colley
The philosopher Hegel famously stated: ‘We learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.’ Others counter that since we cannot yet predict the future, it is only to the past that we can look to seek answers to the strife that we confront today. To that end, many have tried to identify the variables that cause civil wars or the conditions best suited to ending them. Their opponents caution that every conflict is unique, and any attempts to compare or generalise are doomed to failure.
It is in the context of this discussion that one is left reflecting on the future of Syria after another year of civil war. With UN talks in January imminent, interested parties may be wondering what meaningful lessons, if any, can be derived from history to resolve the Syrian conflict. There is a cornucopia of current conflict with which Syria could be compared – instability in Libya and Egypt, Syria’s neighbours Iraq and Lebanon, or the Middle East more generally. But, looking further afield, it is the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) that provides a number of striking insights into the nature of strife in Syria.
One could be immediately forgiven for asking what comparison can be meaningfully drawn from a conflict that began over 75 years ago. The geopolitical situation of the Arab Spring and beyond bears little comparison to 1930’s Europe. In Syria, for example, the incumbent Assad government battles a disunited rebel insurgency; the Spanish Civil War saw the opposite, with a disunited incumbent Republican government facing Franco’s insurgency. Despite such obvious differences, the Spanish Civil War nevertheless yields a number of worthwhile lessons for the future of Syria.
The Spanish Civil War has been viewed as the culmination of conflict between old and new, between the forces of reaction and reform. Initially, reform defeated reaction, as first the Spanish monarchy and then a military dictatorship under Primo de Rivera yielded to new democratic government in 1931. Five years of seesawing between governments of left wing reform and right wing reaction led in 1936 to the breakdown of the Republican state and an attempted military coup led by the Spanish colonial forces, for whom Franco emerged as leader. Following three years of bloody war Franco’s forces prevailed, largely due to an immense disparity in the level of international support received by the two sides.
Parallels to the Arab Spring are noteworthy. Initial optimism for the installation of Spanish democracy in 1931 was followed by years of political turmoil, as the government struggled to reform the political system stuck between the forces of popular reform and reactionary elites wishing to maintain the status quo. Libya and Egypt at present look not dissimilar as early hopes of the Arab Spring fade.
Comparison with Syria is even more striking, most acutely in terms of the international dimension of the conflict. In the Spanish Civil War, Franco received vital military support from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany whereas dithering Britain and France, concerned above all to avoid another European war, failed to support the Republican government. In Syria, the same disparity is evident. Assad’s backing by Russia and Iran has contrasted with the lack of Western support for the Syrian rebels, concerned as they are to avoid another quagmire in the Middle East.
Both conflicts also share an interesting side effect of the disparity in international support: the extensive and high profile role of international fighters. This week’s Sky news feature on a British contingent fighting amongst Syrian rebel forces has put a human face on volunteers dismissed by the West as jihadist terrorists. The fighters strongly contest this narrative, explaining that their decision to fight is profoundly moral, based on the need to protect innocent Muslims from the Assad regime in the absence of action from the international community. The Spanish Civil War saw a similar and perhaps even more extensive influx of foreign fighters. These ‘international brigades’ came from all over the world, fought bravely and died in great numbers for the left wing Republican cause. In the face of the abject failure to intervene from great powers Britain and France, they felt they had to act. It was all too easy for Franco to label such fighters as supporters of communism, just as both Assad and the West have denounced the international fighters in Syria as terrorists. Thus in both conflicts, fear-inducing propaganda campaigns served to reinforce and legitimate Western reluctance to intervene.
So what lessons can be taken from the comparison of Spain and Syria? The most obvious is that given the unequal level of backing for the two sides in Syria, the Assad regime is the most likely victor. One-sided backing sped Franco to victory in a conflict that could have been far more prolonged. Secondly, if Assad does win, his regime will be further entrenched and, as with Franco’s Spain, repression and reprisal may well continue for decades thereafter.
Perhaps this final comparison is the most disconcerting. In failing to support the Republicans against Franco, Britain and France convinced Hitler that they would not oppose his expansionist agenda. Admittedly the West’s opponents today are vastly different. The cautionary tale though is that non-intervention is a sign of weakness that others may see as an opportunity to escalate their actions. Given the complexity of the Syrian war, intervention or even rebel support from the West is now extremely unlikely. So the West has made its bed, and collapsed into it in a state of exhaustion. As it was in Guernica, it is now in Homs. The Syrian people are still suffering, and may well continue to do so under an Assad dictatorship long after the conflict ends. War is being ‘given a chance’. This may well end it sooner than intervention would have. But the West should note that, as with Spain, the political outcome is likely to be distasteful for years to come.