I think giving the analogy between the Spanish civil war and the Syrian civil war is a worthwhile exercise to both understand its innate contrasts, but also in giving an understanding of its crucial underlining comparisons. Though an exercise thought by some to be tedious, according to Daniel Larison, columnist in the American Conservative, I would argue that an exercise as such is worthwhile in the sense that it will allow us to better assess what political pose the Middle East will reflect in the coming years.
The old expression still holds true, ‘there is nothing new under the sun,’ yet that being said, different contexts will always prescribe to how nature is preformed. We live in a political age fundamentally different to that of the last century which was plagued by ideology. To take a jab at Francis Fukuyama - when the Berlin Wall came down- it was not necessarily an end of history, but rather the death of dogmatic ideology. The strife which took place in Spain in the early thirties, edged on by external powers, was a conflict over opposing ideologies. In contrast to the Syrian civil war today, which too is edged on by external elements, is not so much a conflict of ideology, but rather of opposing geo-strategies.
Let’s take a re-cap of what early 1930’s Europe looked like. There out of the ashes of the First World War, and the turmoil which plagued Eastern and Central Europe in its aftermath- arose two stable yet opposing ideological powers, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. Although different in their contexts, both powers could agree that the old decadent manors of the Liberal Democracies of the West were on their way out the door. One of these powers would have to assume this ideological power vacuum which thought to consume all of Europe. There in lied Spain.
Spain for its most part had its own domestic strife to concern itself with. In its own state there was violent quarreling between Carlists versus Marxists, Liberals versus ultra-Catholics, not to mention those seeking more Basque autonomy which still continues today. Spain was unstable, and though it indifferent to the ideological playground being fought over between Berlin and Moscow, both powers saw this instability in Spain as an opportunity to ‘strut their stuff’. ‘Will Europe be communist, or fascist? Let’s see what will happen in Spain,’ is the sort of consciousness these powers had.
Now let’s look at the situation today in Syria. A conflict encouraged on by external powers, is not one confined in Syria, but is a reflection of opposing geo-strategic views of the greater Middle East. The United States and Israel unable to carry out a conventional war against Iran, has decided to engage in a proxy war over Iran’s sphere of influence in the region. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, Iran for the first time in centuries has found itself unchallenged militarily in its near abroad. A country with over 70 million people, and a potential economy, Tehran now stretches an influence all the way from Western Afghanistan, to the Mediterranean. This is counterintuitive to American interests in maintaining a balance of power. Henceforth, the true hidden dagger Iran has against the West, is not nuclear proliferation mainstream media is endless to veer on about, rather it is its newly acquired sphere of influence. A sphere, which according to the West, needs to go and go soon. There in lies Syria, and the intent to overthrow a regime quite friendly and increasingly more dependent on its relationship with Iran.
Yet, some may argue that Spain’s civil war was too something geo-political in its nature. The sort of geo-strategic question of ‘whom will influence continental Europe, Berlin or Moscow?’ But if we were to critique this through a geo-political lens we would have seen this in its aftermath. However, history shows that this Machiavellian cynical nature never took shape. The Spanish falagists who took power and who were ideologically aligned with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were indifferent to both their military escapades to conquer Europe and the Soviet Union. Spain only ended up contributing a minuscule brigade in its assistance, nothing grandeur. As well, no conflict with Spain seizing the Gibraltar peninsula from the British ever took place either, which, geo-strategically, would have certainly ensured Berlin’s interests in halting Britain’s, and later the US’s, access into the Mediterranean sea, (later infamously becoming known as the ‘crocodile’s soft underbelly ‘of German occupied Europe.) From the onset of these two powers intervening in Spain’s civil war, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany already regarded Spain as a weak power, both industrially and militarily, to later contribute anything strategically in their geo-political efforts. For Berlin and Moscow, the Spanish civil war was a conflict confined only to ideology, not of geo-strategy.
In contrast, the external support intervening in Syria’s civil war today is one not bound to any ideology. Outside powers, Russia, and Iran supporting the ruling Alawite regime, and loyal government forces, is faced off against a Western interest coalition- comprised of the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and soon the EU, who support and arm the ‘opposition.’ In concerns to this support, the Western coalition- although able to manipulate animosity between a Shi'ites and Sunnis against a ruling ethnic minority, the Alawites- is indifferent towards the various oppositions’ political affiliations: be they Wahabists, the Sunni backed Muslim Brotherhood, radical militant Islamists, or even secularists. This is also true in the case of Iran’s support. Iran a country who poses itself as a fervent theocratic state, is indifferent in supporting a regime that postures itself ideologically as secular and pan-Arab, Syria’s ruling Ba’th party. This is a conflict not bound to the political spectrum, but is strictly a case of conflicting geo-strategic interests- the West looking to uproot Iran’s recently acquired sphere of influence, stretching from Shias in Iraq, Al Assad in Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, whilst Iran on the other hand- wishing to maintain it.
What is crucial to understand in this conflict, is that despite there being a different in which ends each conflict produced and will produce, in the case of Spain- ideology, in the case of Syria- geo-strategy, both the means of these conflicts are the same. These means although leading to different ends, are ends which give birth to the same overall outcome- a forecast of what to expect in the long run. Understanding the aftermath of the Spanish civil war, gives us an insight of what to expect in the aftermath of the civil war in Syria.
As in the case of Spain’s civil war, behind the backdrop of opposing ideologies, was the opportunity for both powers to test themselves militarily for the war later to engulf all of Europe. For the Germans it gave their air force, the Luftwaffe, a practicing ground. Bombing bridges and railroads, and using tactics of ‘shock and awe’ the German air force walked out of the conflict second too none against the allied forces with developing an ingenious tactic famously known as Blitzkrieg; a tactic which later ensured most of Germany’s success in its conquest of Poland and France. For the means in the Syrian conflict today- the same holds true, it is a testing ground for both external forces.
With the US having no appetite for another military intervention in the Middle East, yet still having crucial interests in a region that seems on the brink of chaos, the Syrian conflict is a test as to whether the Americans can subtly manipulate and overthrow a non-aligned regime without having to intervene formally. Doing so tests the tactics of leading in a manor with more subtlety, and manipulating regional players’ interests to align with theirs. Whether it’s Turkey seeking to play a later regional role in the Arab world, or Saudi Arabia and Qatar not wishing to see the expansion of Shia influence in their back yard, the Unites States is testing itself with an old form of foreign policy similar to that of Britain’s in the 19th century regarding continental Europe. ‘Pull a string here, and pull a string there, but never get your boots dirty.’
At the same time, this too is a testing ground for Iran and Russia who wish to keep their sphere of influence by maintaining the Alawite regime. Whether it’s Russia sending s-300 missile batteries to dissuade foreign air strikes, or Iran funding Hezbollah, or sending its Revolutionary Guard to train government loyalists- for both it is a test as to whether they can maintain their proxy, and be successful in creating an outcome unfavorable to the US which will lead the US to make concessions towards their geo-political interests. In contrast to Spain’s civil war being a practice of military tactics, to Syria’s being a practice of posture, both were tests, tests whose outcome have and will illustrate what to expect in the coming decade in the region.
The Nazis prevailed in manipulating the outcome of Spain’s civil war. The Falangists, an off-shoot of Italy’s fascist party, prevailed, and it demonstrated that Germany offered, not just to itself, but to the world an ideology different from that of communism or liberal democracy. More importantly however, for Germany, their successful outcome of intervening in Spain spelt out to them the unwillingness of the other great powers, be they France, Britain, or the US, to intervene in the affairs of Europe. This impassivity shown by the other powers inspired Berlin later when it decided to invade Czechoslovakia, Poland, and later France. The unwillingness shown by the other great powers in the outcome of Spain’s civil war- gave a forecast to the sort of rationale other players would have in their decisions towards Europe. The same can be said about the outcome to happen in Syria.
For the coalition led by the U.S., despite each one’s different intentions, seek the overthrow of the Alawite regime, while Iran and Russia on the other hand, seek to maintain it. Whether it stays or goes, its aftermath forecasts what to expect in the wider region. If successfully overthrown, it will spell out to the U.S. that it does have dependable allies in the region that they can work with to secure their regional interests. It will set a new precedence for contemporary American foreign policy that formal military intervention is not necessary in halting potential powers in the region, in this case Iran. As opposed to Iraq, the U.S. can influence in a more minor and subtly manor and yet still receive the same outcome without being bogged down in a military conflict.
For the region itself, if Assad is overthrown, the instability will spread into Iraq, Lebanon and possibly Jordan, and there too America will be thrown into the same match of trying to manipulate an outcome beneficial towards its interest, (in this case the ousting of Iranian influence), while not intervening in a major manor.
However, if Assad is to maintain his regime, and become successful with his plight against the rebels, it will spell out a fundamentally different recipe for the region, and even the world.
For the Russians, whose battle is not really confined to Syria, despite it being its only ally in the region, is really looking to bringing the Americans to the negotiating table. Moscow who sees the Americans with no appetite of foreign intervention in Syria knows this is a poker match they can’t loose. Russia anting up on America’s bet to stop Iran having a proxy in Syria, is more about America giving concessions to Moscow over Russia’s former sphere of influence, than it is about maintaining Al Assad’s rule. If Al Assad continues to be successful against the rebels, the Americas will be willing to negotiate more willingly on issues such as the deployment of missile interceptors in Poland (scheduled to be deployed 2018), or possible NATO entry for Georgia, if the Russians are willing to broker a deal on withdrawing their support for Al Assad. Ultimately ,if Assad is to stay, the Russians will walk out with a success in the post-soviet age, where again they can manipulate global events to gain geo-political concessions from the U.S..
Along with the Russians benefiting, if the Alawite regime is to remain, it will become now twice as dependent on Tehran for support, being now far weaker than it was before the civil war. Ultimately this will embolden Iran’s influence in the Levant. Iran will then go forward in its attempts to secure its influence in Bahrain, and Iraq, seeing fit that it’s now at risk to the Americans who have just lost in Syria and seek to undermine them elsewhere.
This is not a conflict which would have inspired an American like Earnest Hemingway to pick up a gun and fight, as having done so in Spain, but has inspired Arabs from Tunisia, or Libya to do exactly that. Within Syria’s own strife of heavy religiousized fighting, each side looks not to the bells with the wonder ‘for whom they toll,’ but rather to the minarets with the wonder if they ‘call to thee.’ What these two conflicts compare with is not its ends, but its means, and despite a contrast in those ends, the aftermath of these ends are to aligned in their comparison. The aftermath of Spain’s civil war illustrated how the coming decade in Europe would later unfold. The aftermath of Syria’s civil war, whether the regime stays or goes, will also give a forecast of what to expect in the coming decade in the Middle East.
As in the case of the Spanish civil war it was a proxy war between two competing powers, and not the main event but rather a defining event of what was to come next. The proxy war between Iran and the US will wage on regardless if Al Assad remains, however, as in the case of the Spanish civil war, the outcome will answer the question of who shall have the upper hand in the next round of this fight.