Reading a review of Adam Hochschilds’s “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939” I was shocked again by the parallels with the “orphan” revolution of our times in Syria (see: Rich Benjamin’s review in the Guardian 14/5/15 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/12/spain-in-our-hearts-americans-in-the-spanish-civil-war-1936-1939-by-adam-hochschild-review). Two years ago there was a lot of rhetorical chatter about young Muslim Islamists volunteering for ISIL being like the volunteers who fought on the Spanish Republican side in the 1930s. Liberal feeling appeared to dismiss this, and the idea that Syria was like Spain was dismissed. I think this is both unjust and unwise, because there are many other parallels which have not been examined, and the consequences of the Spanish Civil War on the rise of European Authoritarianism has not been examined.
To see the connections think of roles rather than labels. This idea will escape the extremists of left and right, who resist the reality that authoritarian regimes of any banner, converge into the same oppressive state designed to favour elites.
The roles in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39:
Oppressive Regime: Spain was dominated by an elite of landowners and industrialists, backed up by the Catholic Church. Since the First World War they had ruled by a mixture of corrupt semi democratic politics (most people lived in rural areas, with dishonest elections) and short lived dictatorships. The coup by Franco and the Nationalists in 1936 set out to reinstate and defend rule by this traditional elite.
Regime Backers: In the 1930s Fascist Germany and Italy. They ignored the “Non-Intervention Agreement” (that farcically they were meant to be helping to enforce) and supplied large quantities of weapons to the Nationalists. They also sent soldiers, pilots and aircraft.
Opposition: In spite of the democratic obstacles, a left wing popular front won the elections of 1936. It became the official Republican government, but lost over half of the armed forces to the rebel Nationalists.
Democratic Opposition Backers: Democratic countries largely kept to the “Non-Intervention Agreement” which prevented the opposition Republican government from buying weapons. Léon Blum’s left wing Popular Front government in France did send some weapons in secret, but was limited by fear of a right wing coup in France.
Authoritarian Opposition Backers: Stalin’s Soviet Union gave quantities of antiquated weapons to the Republicans in exchange for the government’s gold reserves. They also sent some modern tanks and planes. They used this influence to direct the Republican forces, and ruthlessly purge them of all the ideological enemies of Soviet Russia.
International Free Media: They portrayed the conflict as being between extremists. The Nationalists used a policy of terror and killed more than 80% of the victims of repression. The Opposition were portrayed as hard line Soviet Bolsheviks. Fear of war was widespread after the carnage of the First World War. Opinion in democratic countries was firmly against any intervention against authoritarianism, because of the fear this would lead to another Great War.
International Peacemakers: The League of Nations supported non-intervention mostly by stopping arms import. They proposed a ceasefire, mediation and a free election. They did nothing to stop countries from intervening. Nothing was achieved.
Consequences of defeat in the Spanish Civil War:
The lack of support for the Republicans from other democratic countries, meant the Spanish Civil War ended with a victory for the Fascist Franco regime, which lasted until 1975. This victory encouraged other fascist groups in Europe who were waiting to take power with the help of Nazi Germany. In 1939 Belgium, Holland and France fell easily to the German army, and local fascist governments took control. The United States remained neutral until 1941.
Roles in the Syrian Civil War 2011-????:
Oppressive Regime: Since the 1960s Syria has been ruled by the Baathist party. In 1970 this government was taken over by the Assad family dynasty. It is dominated by a clique of a few Alawite (a sect of Shia Islam) families and wealthy Sunni business families. This elite has used its power to enrich itself, relying on systematic torture to suppress any dissent from the Sunni majority population. The regime maintains rigid control over advanced Syrian Armed Forces (supported by Russia) that is designed to stand up against Israel.
Regime Backers: Ironically this started as the Soviet Union, and has continued in Putin’s Russia. Iran supports the Assad regime, because of the Shia connection. They have supplied large quantities of advanced arms, planes, pilots and soldiers.
Opposition: The regional uprisings against oppressive regimes in the Middle East in 2011 spread to Syria. Peaceful demonstrations were violently suppressed, and the opposition to the regime became armed. Most of the arms of the Syrian Armed Forces remained with the Assad regime. Soldiers who moved to the opposition were mostly Sunni conscripts.
Democratic Opposition Backers: Democratic countries have given few arms to moderate opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish groups. No weapons that can deal with aircraft, and only a few anti-tank weapons. The elites who dominate foreign policy in Western countries, have no interest in empowering Syrians. The public in the West associate intervention with the destructive recent conflicts of Afghanistan, Iraq and to a lesser extent Libya. No attempt is made to understand why these failed, and public opinion assumes all types of intervention must fail, and are weary of it.
Authoritarian Opposition Backers: Sunni Monarchies and other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East region have been giving large quantities of arms to extremist Sunni Islamist opposition groups. This has increased the power of these groups over moderate opposition groups. Many fighters have joined extremist groups to access weapons. The Sunni Monarchies have also been giving support to the “Islamic State” group, who have created a barbaric reign of terror in Eastern Syria.
International Free Media: They portray the conflict as being between extremists. The Assad regime has always used a policy of terror and has killed more than 90% of the victims of repression since 2011. The Opposition are portrayed as extremist Islamists. A lot of focus is given to the anti-Western rhetoric and threat from “Islamic State”. Opinion in democratic countries is firmly against any intervention to support people struggling against authoritarianism in the Middle East, because of the weariness of being involved in expensive wars in the Middle East. In Syria this includes fear of the West being involved in a direct war with Russia.
International Peacemakers: The Security Council of the United Nations have refused to authorise direct intervention by other countries in Syria. This includes enforcing no fly zones, and creating safe zones. An arms embargo by Western countries against the moderate Syrian opposition has been dropped. The UN has recently created a partial ceasefire, and started peace talks which are meant to lead to a free election. Nothing has been done to stop Russia and Iran directly intervening in Syria. Little in being done to force the Assad regime to allow food to be regularly supplied to around a million besieged people. It is likely that nothing will be achieved by the UN.
Consequences of defeat in the Syrian Civil War:
The lack of support from other established democratic countries, for the moderate Syrian opposition seeking to create a democracy, will mean the Syrian Civil War ends with a victory for the authoritarian Assad regime. This victory will demonstrate the lack of international will to support democracy, and the related lack of will to maintain existing democracies. Also it will show how easy it is for the hard line media of the right and left to destroy public support for others opposing authoritarianism. Expect a potentially devastating crisis in weakened democracies on the fringes of Europe, with the defeat in Syria as the decisive wrong turn that begins the collapse.
Looking at a comparison of Spanish and Syrian Civil Wars Again:
Looking at the review of “Spain in our hearts” again with this enumeration of roles, the similarities between Spain and Syria stand out vividly. Below are listed quotes from the review about the Spanish Civil War, with notes about how these parallel Syria now.
1. Oppressive Regime’s Terror Strategy.
“… Soldiers [in Spain] severed miners’ hands, genitals and tongues; some wore wire necklaces adorned with the strikers’ sliced-off ears. The young general who presided over the rout was lauded as one of Europe’s most up-and-coming military leaders, a rough-hewn soldier named Francisco Franco, whom the Associated Press proclaimed ‘Spain’s Man of the Hour’….”
Parallels the mass torture and murder committed by the Assad regime, especially since 2011.
2. Use of violence to defeat to defend authoritarianism.
“…. In the landmark elections of 1936 in Spain, the Popular Front – a coalition of liberal, socialist, secular, feminist and communist forces – defeated a coalition of wealthy industrialists, landowners, the Catholic Church and military loyalists. Right-wing forces, led by Franco, launched a military coup against the newly elected republican government, igniting the three-year civil war.”
The difference between Right wing authoritarianism of Franco’s Nationalists and the Left wing authoritarianism of Assad Baathist clique, is not significant as it amounts to same repressive state run for the benefit of elites. In Syria in 2011 a popular uprising as part of the “Arab Spring” was violently crushed by the Assad dictatorship, so creating a civil war that is still raging over five years later.
(* It is also worth noting when reading modern rhetoric about the Spanish Civil War, that Spanish democracy in the 1930s was limited, especially in rural areas. Franco was effectively attempting to reinstate the status quo overturned by popular will.)
3. Economic conditions that spark uprisings
“It was an era of economic crisis, in which general strikes, monetary collapses and vast swaths of homelessness were affecting the US and Europe. Millions felt a sense of despair and urged action; Spain provided a sharp focus. Stalin’s purges were far from general knowledge, so communism held powerful appeal. And fascism enjoyed its own allure. After Hitler grabbed power, promising deliverance to his reeling people, the Canadian prime minister compared him to Joan of Arc.”
The West is currently in a prolonged economic crisis, caused by neo-liberal economics, resulting in huge wealth inequality and an associated debt crisis. The same happened in the 1930s. Far right wing political parties in Europe are gaining influence.
A significant minority of progressives in the West are influenced by Russian propaganda, which is presented as a genuine alternative to “capitalist” media, and are actually hostile to the Syrian Revolution. Most others are indifferent. In contrast the Republican side in Spain received some sympathy (exaggerated in retrospect) but little action. George Orwell lamented: “To the British working class the massacre of their comrades in Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, or wherever it might be seemed less interesting and less important than yesterday’s football match.” [Looking Back On The Spanish War,1942]
4. The rise of authoritarianism in Europe.
“The Führer was wooing admirers among Spanish generals, English nobility and American oligarchs, all threatened by populist movements. Portugal, Poland, Greece, Lithuania and Romania, alongside the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy, all suffered under far-right regimes or dictators. “Fascism,” André Malraux lamented, “has spread its great black wings over Europe.”
The far right are gaining ground in France, Holland, Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary.
5. Foreign backers of the regime and the opposition.
“Many soldiers on both sides of the [Spanish] civil war felt that their fate was being decided elsewhere. Stalin’s regime sent the republican fighters antiquated guns and tanks, and tried to manipulate the war from Moscow.”
The fate of the Assad regime and the Syrian Revolution, is being decided by outside powers. The indifference of the public in the West, has allowed the elites who dominate Western foreign policy, to ensure the Syrian moderate opposition is poorly armed. Stalin’s Russia played a similar role in the Spanish Civil War.
The public’s fear of conflict has encouraged the appeasement of Putin’s Russia. In the same way Fascist Germany and Italy were appeased, in order to avoid war, when actually this strategy encouraged authoritarian regimes and movements to take bigger gambles.
6. Indifference and dithering among elites about the Civil War.
“Members of the British elite hedged their bets, with indifference. ‘If there is somewhere where fascists and Bolsheviks can kill each other off’, sniffed British prime minister Stanley Baldwin, ‘so much the better.’ In private, Franklin D Roosevelt dithered. Publicly he championed the US’s neutrality laws, which banned arms sales to either side.”
The Syrian Civil War is seen by Western elites, in a distorted way, as a struggle between Russia and Shia Iran, against Sunni Islamist extremists. A long war is a way to weaken both sides. The Syrian people, the real opposition are ignored. Stanley Baldwin was a conservative politician who led the National Government in the UK from 1935, whose policy was to appease the fascists.
Obama’s US government have given some arms to the opposition, and crucially withheld them in 2012 when the Assad regime looked as if it may have collapsed. Obama is notorious for dithering over the “red line” warning given to the Assad regime over the use of chemical weapons in 2013.
7. The greater support given by the regime’s backers.
“Hitler and Mussolini supplied Franco with troops, warplanes and weapons – assistance estimated to cost between $432m and $692m then, or from $7bn to $11bn today. The conflict emerged as a staging ground, or gruesome rehearsal, for the Second World War.”
Ironically Putin’s Russia now ensures that the Assad dictatorship has military superiority, just as Fascist Germany and Italy did for Franco’s Nationalists. The Syrian Civil War is a stepping stone in the encouragement by Russia and China of authoritarian movements in Europe. The lack of support for the Syrian opposition exposes the weakness of democratic will in Europe and the United States.
The opposition to the Assad regime has been smeared as being mostly extremists, while the atrocities committed by the regime have been widely unreported. The Syrian Civil War has been explained as being due to Arab or Islamic cultural backwardness. These type of smears were also directed at the Spanish Civil War.
8. The wisdom of taking a broader view of the Syrian opposition.
“Witnessing the imprisonment, torture and killings ordered by Stalin’s Spanish henchmen against his [George Orwell] fellow leftists, disillusioned him, though he continued fighting loyally. “Whichever way you took it,” he wrote, “it was a depressing outlook. But it did not follow that the government was not worth fighting for as against the more naked and developed fascism of Franco and Hitler.”
The Assad Regime is incapable of reform. Over forty five years of systematic oppression, torture, murder and extortion needs to end. Peace talks with the clique who dominate the wider Syrian government are absurd.
9. The misclassification of the Syrian Civil War.
“Under Hochschild’s sure prose, however, can be heard the wavering nostalgia of a baby boomer yearning for a time when wars had more moral clarity. His generational tribe broadly supported peace movements, and generally opposed US intervention in cold war flashpoints, from Vietnam to Nicaragua to El Salvador, and the invasion of Iraq. But Hochschild artfully coaxes the reader into thinking that the world would have been better off for generations had western democracies, especially the US, not stood aside during Spain’s cardinal war. He asks: when is military involvement in a distant conflict justified or even demanded?”
The Syrian Civil War should be in the same category as the Spanish Civil War, as a struggle of a mainly democratic opposition against an oppressive regime. Also as a part of a wider struggle of democracy to resist rising authoritarianism.
Instead it is being seen as a neo-colonialist war, in the same mould as the neo-colonialist cold war conflicts. Where rival super powers struggled to impose authoritarian governments labelled as far right or far left, on non-Western countries, resulting in mass murder and suffering. The genocidal struggle over Vietnam killed approximately 2 million people for example.
In the same way the Spanish Civil War was seen in the light of the First World War, as a struggle between groups of nations seeking dominance. It should have been seen at the time as a struggle between democratic and authoritarian ideologies. Later it was correctly reclassified as a precursor to the struggle against fascism of the Second World War.
A concluding thought from the review.
“Spain in Our Hearts closes also with an elderly American woman travelling in 2012 to an old battlefield to commemorate her disappeared brother’s death in 1938. ‘I told him we honoured his goodness and idealism and that the world turned out to be a much more politically complicated truth then he could ever have known.’ “
Yes it is complicated, but that does not mean it should not or cannot be tackled. Just like Spain the Syrian Civil War needs to be ended as quickly as possible with a victory for the opposition to tyranny. It is up to the millions of people who will never read this article or better ones like it, who will decide.