Homage to Latakia: Comparing Syria and the Spanish Civil War

Why non-intervention isn’t an option

Time to bomb Syria?

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

I’m guilty, perhaps, of seeing too much of today’s conflicts through the lens of the Spanish Civil War. I spent years of my life immersed in studying and writing about it, and it shaped the way I think.

And yet the lessons from that tragedy continue to reverberate, even if they are largely ignored. The primary one is that fascism cannot be appeased. Few openly dispute that today, given the near-universal acceptance that the Second World War was a good and necessary war, and that we waited too long to confront the fascism behind it.

Instead, we pretend fascism isn’t there, to justify not fighting against it. We sneer at those who use the term to describe the Khomeinists in Iran — although that state’s demand for subservient conformity, its murderous suppression of dissent, and the oppression it visits on its Baha’i religious minority doesn’t leave room for a lot of other equally accurate adjectives.

We ignore the Taliban’s bloodlust, their ethnic and religious supremacism, and we say they are in fact Pashtun nationalists, or conservative Muslims, or anti-imperialists, or something else we cannot understand because we are Western and they are not and it’s arrogant for us to even try. And so we abandon their victims and congratulate ourselves on not making the same mistakes as George W. Bush.

Another lesson from Spain, for those who choose to look, concerns the fallacy of non-intervention. That was the policy adopted by the democracies — including Canada — in 1936, when the Spanish general Francisco Franco, backed by his allies Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, launched a rebellion against Spain’s democratically elected government that eventually toppled it and enslaved the country.

We said it was a Spanish conflict, a civil war, and should be decided by the Spaniards. It wasn’t. The democracies might not have intervened, but other powers did. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany picked one side; Stalinist Soviet Union picked the other.

When the war began, the Communists were a minor force within Spain’s republican coalition. Then Spain’s presumed democratic friends deserted it, while the Soviet Union sent weapons and men. Soviet and Spanish Communist power consequently grew. By 1937, the Soviet NKVD and its Spanish allies ran secret jails in Madrid where they murdered political opponents from amongst their supposed anti-fascist comrades.

Which brings us to Syria. It’s been two years, some 80,000 deaths, and hundreds of thousands of displaced. What began as a democratic uprising has become a civil war. Those against doing anything about it have cycled through various arguments, all of which miss a basic point. Non-intervention isn’t an option, because intervention is already happening. Saying you’re against intervention in Syria is like standing in the middle of a blizzard and saying you’re against snow.

The Iranians are backing dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that usually concerns itself with rocketing Israel or preparing for the same, has dispatched fighters to Assad. The opposition is a diverse group, but what seems clear is that that the Salafi Islamists among them are gaining strength. Of course they are. For two years, they’ve been getting money and support from Gulf Arab states, while the more moderate factions fighting Assad have received basically nothing the West.

Oh, maybe that’s not fair. The United States is sending “non-lethal” aid, because when it comes to knocking a strafing MiG jet fighter out of the sky, nothing beats a pair of night vision goggles. Canada is footing the bill for some refugees’ tents. Maybe we’ll speed up the refugee process for Syrians fleeing Assad. It’s not exactly a stirring expression of solidarity: “Your struggle is our struggle, and after you lose it, we’ll help you find an apartment in Mississauga.” John Baird should stitch that on a banner and march under it the next time he visits the Middle East.

But at least all this sitting on our hands has given time for a more coherent isolationist pitch to take shape. After years of fretting about the nature of opposition, now it does look a lot more unsavoury than when the war began. Our timidity has become a self-reinforcing excuse. Non-intervention weakened the hands of Spanish democrats, and it does the same to Syrian ones.

It didn’t have to be this way. We could have backed our natural Syrian allies when they were stronger. Doing so is now more complicated and difficult but still necessary. After two years, it’s a fair assumption that even if Western intelligence agencies are befuddled by the exact makeup of the opposition, the Turks and Jordanians probably have a pretty good idea. The more moderate elements of the opposition should be identified and given the weapons they need to prevail. There are escalating options on top of this: a protected safe haven on the ground; air strikes; a no-fly zone. The Syrian rebels have not asked for foreign troops, and I’m not suggesting we offer them. But a negotiated peace is not imminent. This war will end when one side wins. If we care about the outcome, we should be willing to shape it.


Homage to Latakia: Comparing Syria and the Spanish Civil War

  1. I was heartened at the beginning to see an author whose only answer seems to be more and more violence perhaps take a moment for self-reflection, but as this piece wore on I became disappointed at the more-of-same and stopped reading.

    • One of course is reminded of George W. Bush trying to justify the invasion of Iraq by comparing Saddam to Hitler and warning we must act before…well, i can’t exactly recall what inane possibility he brought up.

      to someone who always preaches war, every war becomes the second world war.

    • So…if you stopped reading, why did you comment? Do you think we should care? Read the whole thing, then comment. Or don’t, and don’t comment.

  2. Never discount the factor of self interest. If Bush hadn’t been addicted so blindly and dishonestly to neo liberal idealism [ not to mention fond of incompetent solutions] we might not now see a Democrat president who is so gun shy and passive in geo political terms.[ aside from the drone programme] America’s broke; America’s sick and tired of wars, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or the potential for one in the far more dangerous ME.

    It isn’t an adequate excuse for not taking some of those escalating actions,[ particularly a no-fly zone and backing for moderates]but it is a rational one; and it does explain the reluctance and or timidity. Especially when you don’t have willing partners in Russia and China. Self – reinforcing excuses beget self reinforcing excuses, if they’re in your national self interest.

  3. When everything looks like a nail ….

  4. “Saying you’re against intervention in Syria is like standing in the middle of a blizzard and saying you’re against snow.”
    Great line!!!

    • If by great you mean flakey non sequitur masquerading as a deep metaphor, then yeah.

  5. Since Franco and his quasi-fascist Nationalists were about as bad as the brutal ideologues in the Republican Faction, equating it to the choice between an Iranian puppet and a bunch of rebel Al-qaeda Jr’s is apt.

  6. The obvious, glaring difference is that the civil war in Spain was a microcosm of an imminent war between democracy and Fascism that involved the whole of Western civilization (Europe, NA, SA). That’s why the guys you wrote about volunteered and died. That’s why the Fascist dictators sent guns and airplanes.

    Meanwhile, nobody intervened in China (except Norman Bethune, I guess). Certainly nobody intervened in China in the 1920’s. Nobody intervened central Africa in the 2000’s. And nobody is intervening in Syria now. Why oh why could that be? Could it be because those conflicts, quite unlike the Spanish Civil War, have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH US?!?!

    • strictly speaking, the world war didnt necessary have to involve the US, in fact, member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade even denounce US”s entry into the war as “imperialistic” and saying that the war was serving the interest of the “American Empire), which i obviously think is absurd . They only decided to support the war when germany attacked the Soviet Union

      If you say no one volunteered in China except Norman Bethune, then u are right. but there were state actors involved, Germany supplied the KMT with military advisers in fighting the communists. With al-qaeda gaining an increasing strong presence in Syria, I don’t see how it has nothing to do with us (the west), it is my humble opinion that we should support the democratic opposition in syria in resisting both dictatorship and fanactical theocracy

  7. OK, so Syria today is 1930s Spain, and this is a replay of the prelude to WWII; consequently, in order to ultimately win the war, liberal democracies should let the Communists (i.e. Iranians) and the Fascists (i.e. Islamist gulf states) test their respective strengths in a turf war. Meanwhile, liberal democracies should first give a try at appeasing the Fascists (Islamist Gulf states — wait, would that be Obama’s Cairo speech?), before realizing they are truly evil, and fighting an all-out war against them, possibly allying themselves with the Communists (Ayatollahs) to ensure final victory, followed by decades of cold war with the former wartime ally?

    Worked well last time around. Sucks to be Syrian, just like it sucked to be Spanish, but hey, on the bright side, there’s no Picasso without Guernica… Although it’ll be really interesting to see what the Syrian Picasso comes up with, given his favoured regime (the Ayatollahs) don’t tend to be art enthusiasts…

  8. The democracies should have supported Franco to help rescue Spain from the mess that the republicans were creating.

    That would have shortened the civil war and greatly reduced both casualties and property loss, as well as reducing the influence obtained by the Axis powers there.

    • Always nice to see that Hitler still has his fanboys.

  9. Likening Syria to the Spanish Civil War is grossly misleading, especially when you liken the Iranian regime (Assad’s ally) to the Fascists. The revolt in Syria comprises the Sunni majority, splintered into groups. The revolt in Spain consisted of Fascists united by ideology and ready for action as they took town and town slaughtering any known leftists and Republicans. Syria in contrast in more like Yugoslavia where different ethno-religious groups will have to carve out enclaves – hence Assad’s violent ejection of Sunnis from various parts of Damascus and the coast.
    Your default support for the Spanish anarchists is a poor choice indeed i.e. only the stupid are good, as upheld by George Orwell and Noam Chomsky. Given the Canadian’s perennial obsession with anarchist egalitarian democracy perhaps only South Park gets it right: “what’s the matter with his head?”

  10. I can’t belive this guy spent “years” studying the Spanish Civil War and didn’t get what fascism is really all about.