Syria is Spain.
Not the Spain of 2013, but the Spain of 1936-39 when wracked by civil war, it was viewed much in the manner in which we regard Syria regarded today: a struggle between good and evil. Spain served as a combination of proxy battle between fascists (Nationalists) and nonfascists (Republicans) and de facto prelude to World War II. But in 1930s Spain, the “good guys” were the government (the Republic) and the bad guys were the rebels (military units headed by Francisco Franco seeking to overthrow the Republic). The era’s liberal, politically-correct leftists supported the Republic, which was also backed by the Soviets and Mexico. The conservative Christian Falange (allied with Germany, Italy, and Portugal) fought for its overthrow.
There were atrocities on both sides; tens of thousands of civilians, both Republicans and Nationalists were killed for religious or political views. Various casualty counts range between 500,000 and a million.
As is often the case, the liberals had the better public relations both at the time and subsequently. Ernest Hemingway’s magna opus, For Whom the Bell Tolls, recounts the travails/defeat of Republican guerrillas, and Picasso’s Guernica depicts the horrors of aerial bombardment. Although countries such as the United States, Canada, the UK, and France maintained neutrality, individual citizens participated extensively, reportedly totaling 40,000 from 53 countries. Republican International Brigades, including the U.S. “Abraham Lincoln brigade” and even a Canadian contingent, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, fought for the Republic, countered by the Condor Legion of Germans (16,000) and Italians (50,000). But the Republicans were defeated, and Franco’s Spain persisted until 1975.
At the time, the chattering class judgment was that the “good guys” had lost, but retrospectively one might ask whether democracy would have benefited from a communist Spain rather than a conservative right wing dictatorship dominating the Iberian Peninsula.
Although history is hardly destiny, the Spanish Civil War provides perspective for prospective U.S./Canadian involvement in Syria. This time the government is the “bad guys” and the rebels are the “good guys.” We have an unpopular dictatorship in Damascus assailed by a wide assortment of disparate rebels, lacking coherent unity. After a surge of success, the rebels appeared to have the government on the run, controlling a substantial part of the country. The Damascus government, however, did not collapse; fighting desperately (perhaps in fear of the consequences of defeat) its army has remained loyal. Recently, the government, reinforced by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, as well as continued armament resupply from Tehran and Moscow, has regained the initiative.
The rebels are squealing like pigs caught in a fence. All is lost — without immediate major deliveries of high tech weapons to counter government aircraft and armor.
And Washington — although the messages are muddled — appears on the verge of delivering such equipment.
If we do, it will be a poorly considered step more deeply into a tar pit.
- We have no “dog” in this fight. All Syria’s neighbors are well capable of protecting their own interests. Indeed, the Turkish armed forces (despite current political distractions) could easily implement a “no fly” zone and/or defeat the tattered Syrian army. That they have taken no action should tell us something.
- To the extent that we have a vulnerable ally (Jordan), we have moved to support it.
- The rebels' plea for high tech (and low tech) weapons could easily be supplied by friendly neighbors. The region is awash in military hardware, but many are concerned that providing portable anti-aircraft missiles could result in them shooting down passenger aircraft at Orly, Heathrow, or Tel Aviv airports;
- The Chemical Weapons use “red line” is a red herring. Anyone willing to accept “intelligence” judgments regarding Syrian government chemical weapons use is a candidate to purchase the Brooklyn Bridge. We bought the intelligence-driven judgment on that piece of infrastructure with Iraqi WMD, in case you have forgotten. And do you notice that nobody is mentioning the UN investigator’s judgment in May that the rebels used chemical weapons?
- The lamentations over the number of deaths are disproportionate (see Spanish Civil War casualty statistics above). Every such death is a tragedy, but reportedly ongoing fighting in the Congo has killed upwards of six million, and cynics suggest they are ignored because they are not white.
In short, Syria is one war we don’t need. We have a praiseworthy societal tendency to cheer for the underdog — without appreciating the underdog can be as mean and vicious as the top dog, just momentarily underneath.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.