As you will have no doubt heard – due to the fact that the media has finally cottoned on to the horrors occurring – there is a vicious and bloody civil war being fought in the country of Syria. Unrest began in March 2011 after demonstrations against the Assad regime broke out as part of the Arab Spring uprisings. The regime responded in the form of tear gas, bullets, shells, warplanes, and recently, cluster bombs. Violence spiraled in a series of massacres and resistance from a growing rebellion army, dragging the country into the largest civil conflict in the country’s history.
The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 after a rebellion was launched by Fascist forces, led by General Francisco Franco and aided by the established Fascist dictatorships in Europe, sought to topple the democratic left-wing government. The war raged for three years between the ‘Republican’ forces and the ‘Nationalist’ forces, and by 1939 the Nationalists had taken control of the country, imposing a military dictatorship which would last for decades.
There are many similarities between the two conflicts in some ways, and differences in others, but enough similarities to be worth commenting on. Whether Syria will be one of many cases where history is repeated remains to be seen, but hopefully this post will explore where these repetitions may occur. As ever, I am not an expert and there are merely my own views – as misguided they may possibly be.
Both the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, from a Western Liberal perspective, can be interpreted as a war between freedom and tyranny. The lines blur, as they always must in wars, but overall this seems to be the case. In Spain the combatants were the democratic (to begin with) Republican government and the dictatorial, Fascist Nationalists. There is little doubt that, having seen the atrocities in Spain’s totalitarian government under Franco, which was to follow, the Nationalists were not on the side of freedom. With the Republican government increasingly becoming a puppet of the Soviet Union, almost entirely dependent on Soviet support, it is debatable whether this side could be considered the side of ‘freedom’, but as the war began the Republicans were certainly fighting in the defence of democracy and freedom.
Syria is more clear cut. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has ruled Syria for nearly four decades. The government’s rule has been characterised by brutal oppression; Syria is a country where mass imprisonment and torture are commonplace. An Islamic revolt occurred between 1976 and 1982, culminating in the mostly undocumented Hama massacre which razed the city and killed tens of thousands of people. In retrospect, this can be seen as a sort of blueprint by the government in handling civil unrest. Assad’s regime is undeniably on the side of oppression and tyranny. The rebellion to oust him began as mass protests by hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country, and the rebel army which followed is dedicated to fighting for a free, democratic future. Yes, there are extreme factions within the rebellion – most worryingly Islamic jihadists – whose growing influence is a cause for concern, but I believe a majority of the fighters would reject their views.
Another similarity, which in my view is the strongest, is how both wars rapidly became a proxy war. A proxy war is the situation where a major power, or often two major powers, instigate or support sides in a conflict which the power itself if not directly involved in. I’ve already mentioned how the Spanish Civil War became a proxy war, with the Nationalists supported by the Fascist dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Portugal, and with the Republicans supported by the Communist Soviet Union. This level of support on the Fascist side extended deeply. The Guernica bombing is a famous example of German intervention, and over 10,000 German soldiers fought in the war. Italy’s level of support went further, with over 60,000 Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side, as well as in the form of aid such as warships, ammunition and over 700 warplanes. The Fascist powers of Europe were desperate for a Nationalist victory as this would further isolate the dwindling democratic powers of Europe – namely Britain and France.
Support for the Republicans came almost exclusively from the Soviet Union, whose motives were more halting the spread of Fascism than to install Communism in Spain. Its level of support was also large, with many thousand Soviet soldiers fighting for the Republicans and large amounts of aid being sent. The Republicans also received aid from Mexico, though this was nowhere near comparable to the amount provided by the European dictators.
The attitude of what would today be perceived as ‘The West’ was one of non-intervention. In fact, many officials in Britain were open about their desire for a Nationalist victory, as this was seen as preferable to a potential spread of Communism. Britain, France and the USA pledged to not become involved in the war, limiting their role to that of sending humanitarian aid.
This was similar to the situation in Syria in many ways. Although to not as great a degree or from as many sources, much military and logistical aid is making its way to the opposing sides in the Syrian conflict. The regime’s most outspoken backer is Iran, which sees its unusual alliance with the secular dictatorship as a way of maintaining influence in the Middle-East and applying pressure onto Israel. The regime is also, more covertly, receiving aid from Russia – both politically and militarily. Russia’s political support of Syria, due to its presence on the UN Security Council, has prevented any meaningful international intervention in the conflict, thus giving the Assad regime the opportunity to clamp down on resistance without interference. Russia is also a large supplier of arms to the regime, despite international condemnation.
Support for the rebellion comes from an even stranger source; the highly oppressive Gulf States – most significantly Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The rebellion in Syria is being fought, mostly, for freedom and democracy, so it may at first appear odd that these Islamic Monarchies are supporting the movement, but their motivations are down to politics. Fiercely opposed to Iran, the Gulf states see this as an opportunity to sever Iranian influence upon the region. Democracy would be an unfortunate side-effect to this goal.
Dark green shows countries which have recognised Syria’s opposition. Light green shows countries which have officially supported the opposition.
Very much like in the Spanish Civil War, the role of ‘The West’ has been minimal. Although there is clear vocal support from most democracies towards the rebel movement, most governments are unwilling to become involved without a legally-binding resolution from the UN, which is currently being blocked by Russia and China. To date France, Turkey, the UK and Spain have recognised the ‘Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and, along with the USA, have been providing non-lethal aid – including communications equipment. Turkey is also allowing its territory to be used by rebel fighters to organise and supply.
However, although there are many similarities between the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, there are also many differences. One significant difference is the root of each conflict. The Spanish Civil War began as an armed insurgency and coup attempt by the Nationalist Forces, whereas the Syrian Civil War began as a popular uprising against President Assad’s regime and the armed elements followed later. From my perspective this gives the rebel factions in Syria more legitimacy than those in Spain had, as they are actually fighting for the will of ‘the people’ (but not all).
The forms of warfare are also different. The war in Spain was fought in trenches, land battles and with heavy aerial capabilities from both sides. The rebels in Syria are far more disadvantaged: they’re fighting a guerrilla war across the cities and country side of Syria, fighting street by street and making minimal gains against the regime’s artillery and air-power. The role of warplanes is significant in both conflicts, but in Syria this role is far more one-sided with the air virtually dominated by Assad forces.
The war in Syria has not attracted the number of foreign volunteers to join the rebellion as would be expected. The most significant volunteer movement from abroad would be the emergence of Islamic Jihadist groups, whose numbers make up over 5,000 fighters. This pales in comparison to the 32,000 volunteers who joined the Republicans in Spain to fight against Fascism.
And finally, although the most difficult at present to judge, is the direction in which the war is flowing. The Nationalists made steady gains all throughout the Spanish Civil War and were heading towards a victory from early on. The situation in Syria, being far from conclusion, can only be predicted. Although the regime has an upper hand in virtually every respect, it is gradually being pushed back in all areas of the country be rebels. Despite this, the war is currently in a state of stalemate. Most analysts and observers do not believe the Assad regime will survive, however, due to the wide opposition to it both domestically and internationally. It appears likely that both wars will be won by the rebellion and end in revolution, but where in Spain this was a triumph for Fascism, in Syria this will, it is hoped, be a triumph for democracy.
In conclusion, there are both many similarities and differences between the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011-present. It may be futile to explore the similarities, or it may also give an indication of the direction Syria as a country will go during the war and after. It is said that history repeats itself, and I believe this is and will increasingly be one of those instances.