A friend recently drew an interesting parallel between the civil war in Syria today and that in Spain during the 1930s. To be sure, the ideologies and actors are different, and neither side of the Spanish civil war is analogous to any of the competing factions in Syria. But in at least one respect the similarities are striking.
In 1930s Europe, where fascism was making a meteoric rise, where liberal democracy was reeling due to the frailty of its response to depression, and where communism offered a surprisingly-robust alternative, Spain became the continent’s battleground. Rebel conservatives (an alliance between Falange Española and monarchists), who accepted admission into the European fascist fold, fought against republicans representing the elected government, who found their sponsors on the left.
Foreign fighters flocked to Spain, in large numbers from Britain, the United States, and France, even when their governments sat uncomfortably on the fence, and there they found themselves caught up in the midst of sectarian disputes on the left between the more statist Soviet advisors who arrived with the backing of their government and the anarchists.
Next to the slapdash international brigade, massive fascist intervention was more structured and successful. Mussolini and Hitler helped Franco, the rebel general, to transport the formidable Army of Africa to Spain, where he was then aided by tens of thousands of fascist volunteers from Germany and Italy. Hitler despatched hundreds of planes and tanks, and took the opportunity to try out many of the tactics and methods which would define the Second World War in Spain, including the large-scale aerial bombing of civilians, immortalised in Picasso’s painting, Guernica.
For Spaniards, the war was a matter of life and death. But their country became the playground for not only totalitarians like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Salazar, but also Britain, France, the United States, and Mexico, all of whom pursued a proxy war through sending funds, volunteers, weapons, or by playing a cynical diplomatic game which made a mockery of the morality which was supposed to characterise international relations in the aftermath of the purposeless butchery of the First World War.
Their interventions—military, financial, or diplomatic—were not about the welfare of Spaniards, but about manipulative Great Power politics. It was about edging out rivals, promoting their ideologies, and pushing the kind of international brinkmanship that ultimately led to the Second World War.
Conveniently from the perspective of those waging proxy war in Spain, it was mostly Spaniards who did the dying, whose cities were wrecked, and whose society was plunged into years of the brutality that invariably accompanies civil war, and into a dictatorship which did not end until the 1970s.
What is occurring in Syria is not so different. The big playground bullies—the U.S., Russia, and China—are each trying to frustrate the other’s Middle Eastern interests and humiliate their rival. There is no sense of common purpose or of a real responsibility to uphold the international norms of which U.S. imperialism and Russian and Chinese internal suppression make such a mockery. Old colonial powers are yearning to use Syria’s misfortune as a way to get back into the game. And state and non-state fundamentalists on either side of the Sunni-Shia divide are sending fighters, weaponry, and other material support to the Syrian government on the one hand, and to the motley collection of “rebels” on the other. Just how motley a collection of fighters that “side” of the war is might be illustrated by the fact that they have the backing of both Al Qaeda and the U.S.
At a second glance, it is not so strange that a proxy war creates such strange alliances-by-extension. The military intelligence complex in the United States, the neo-imperialists in the Kremlin, the ossified authoritarians of the Gulf States and their counterparts in Iran, and the non-state terrorists are all interested in power first and ideology second. Far down the line comes the welfare of Syria’s citizens, that country’s social fabric, and its future.
In a very real and frightening way, the world is going to war in Syria, and should the U.S. intervene, backing some scary people in the process, we will be escalating the conflict. Other state actors might well intervene in their own way, and non-state actors will do their best to draw the U.S. deeper into a conflict which will weaken our nation and our ability to care for our own citizens while wreaking havoc on Syria.
The Obama administration is eager to reassure the public that this will not become another Iraq. I think the danger is that it could become something ultimately much worse. No other powerful state backed the assortment of interests which resisted the United States in Iraq. Things are different in Syria. And when Iran on the one hand and Al Qaeda on the other began to project their power in Iraq, the U.S. was already dug-in. In Syria, we will be jumping into a violent melee full of unknown quantities, instead of defending ground in a mess purely of our own making. We will be making a calculated decision to increase the violence and to exacerbate the uncertainty for the people who will have to live amidst the rubble after the U.S. and Russia limp home having satisfied our inflated egos.
The Spanish Civil War, along with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, marked the unravelling of a morally powerful but institutionally weak world order, created in the aftermath of a shocking war, infused with heady idealism, but suborned by the hypocrisy of the colonial powers and weakened by the absence of the world’s rising power...the United States. The victors of the First World War had used the League of Nations as a framework to collect the debts they had extracted from the losing side of a war in which there was enough culpability to go around, and yet refused to back up its moral strictures.
When the nations of the world gathered to rebuild the world that six years of war nearly annihilated, they failed to learn from their earlier errors. Their charter was full of hope, and aspired “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”. And yet their edifice replicated the power relations which had engineered those wars and failed to sufficiently embody the views of those peoples who were in the process of struggling for their independence from the old colonial empires, and who would shortly constitute a majority of the world’s nations.
Similarly, the United Nations is failing to resolve the civil war in Syria is not due—as some would suggest—to any innate inadequacy of the notion of an international community. It is failing because ultimate power rests with five nations, each of whom can literally bend an institution designed to serve the good of humanity to the sordid needs of their governments. It is failing because the world’s superpower spurns international accords which infringe on its power. It is failing because the great powers have little use for international law until they can beat one another with it, or until its maintenance becomes so important to their self-interest that they urge the world to break it to save it.
It is this anarchic mentality which, from the vantage point of the second decade of the twenty-first century, makes Syria’s civil war look irresolvable in spite of the fact that it has the capacity to set the world on fire if it is allowed to burn on.
A glance across the last century provides ample evidence that as one of our own country’s founders noted, men are manifestly not angels, and that we need institutions capable of protecting those who otherwise suffer when the powerful amongst us run amok.
The European continent’s darkest hour of the twentieth century began when its members tore one of their nations to pieces in a deliberate effort to prefigure the cataclysmic battle they would soon fight amongst themselves in such a way as to drag the world off to war. We should think, as the powerful nations of the twenty-first century prepare to set upon Syria, what this conflict might presage, and whether we still have time to pull back. At the first meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco, Britain’s Lord Halifax noted that ours is “no enchanted palace”. That is true. It is, in fact, the only world we have, and we should be thinking about how to make it a peaceful place for the generations who will grow up in the conditions which our actions today will create.