“History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” said Mark Twain.
Observing the uprising in Syria, the atrocities, the intervention by rival powers, it all calls to mind the Great Rehearsal for World War II, the Spanish Civil War.
The war began in 1936 with an uprising in Morocco of Spanish Nationalists against a Madrid regime seen as anti-Catholic, Marxist and Trotskyite. Vladimir Lenin had predicted that Spain would be the second Soviet republic in Europe.
The war would last three years, with Josef Stalin providing aid to the regime, Benito Mussolini sending troops to fight on the side of Gen. Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler sending his Condor Legion. The bombing of Guernica by the Legion, commemorated in the famous Picasso painting of that name, would be regarded as the great war crime of the conflict.
Yet Guernica was child’s play compared with what was to come with the Blitz, Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima. The Nuremberg Tribunal would wisely rule out terror bombing of cities as a war crime for which Nazis could be prosecuted and hanged.
As America has declined to intervene in Syria, FDR declared neutrality early in the Spanish Civil War, outlawing any sale of weapons to either side.
In 1936, as the Spanish war erupted, FDR spoke for his country:
“We shun commitments which might entangle us in foreign wars; we avoid connections with the political activities of the League of Nations. … We are not isolationists except insofar as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war.”
America emphatically agreed.
Today, it is the bitter fruit of Iraq and Afghanistan that explains our reluctance. Then, it was 116,000 American dead in places like the Argonne and Belleau Wood – which had produced a Carthaginian peace at Versailles and set the table for Hitler – that had left us with ashes in our mouths.
Two battalions of American volunteers did go to Spain to fight on the side of the regime. In 1947, veterans of that “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” would be put on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations.
In Spain, the struggle was ideological and religious – Nationalists and Catholics against socialists, communists and anarchists.
In Syria, too, it is religious – the Alawite Shia regime of Bashar Assad battling an uprising centered in the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.
As Europe in 1936 contained democracies, dictatorships of the fascist and authoritarian right, and a Stalinist left, today’s Middle East contains democracies, monarchies and dictatorships.
As there were Catalans and Basques fighting for their own causes in Spain, in Syria today are Kurds, Druze and al-Qaida with their own rival agendas.
As America and Britain stayed out of the Spanish Civil War, so today America and Britain have stayed aloof from Syria’s conflict.
As the Spanish Civil War exposed the impotence of the League of Nations, Syria’s conflict is exposing the paralysis of the United Nations, when permanent members of the Security Council like Russia refuse to authorize the kind of intervention they did in Libya.
As the Spanish republic received moral and material support from Moscow, today Moscow sends attack helicopters to Damascus, while Turkey provides sanctuary for the resistance, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar provide weapons.
Russia and Iran see Assad’s Syria as their last strong, reliable ally in the region. Syria’s ports on the Mediterranean are open to Vladimir Putin’s navy. And Putin’s military-industrial complex has long sold the Assad family the weapons to fight its wars and crush rebellions.
If Assad’s regime were to collapse and the Muslim Brotherhood come to power, Russia would be virtually out of the Middle East. Iran would be almost isolated. Had we not overthrown the Sunni regime of Saddam and brought the Shia majority to power in Baghdad, an Iran without Syria would be an Iran without a major ally across the region.
The first peril in the Syrian conflict is that it could become a civil war in which not just 10,000 die, but scores of thousands perish.
A second danger is that as Syria contains Sunni, Shia, Druze, Kurd, Arab, Christian – indeed, mirrors the Middle East – a Syrian civil war could become a proxy war for all in the region, beginning with Lebanon.
Third, as Syria is aligned with Iran in the conflict with Israel and with Russia on the world stage, greater powers may come to see themselves as having a vital stake in how this war ends, and intervene, each in its own way, to assure a favorable outcome.
The Spanish Civil War ended in Franco’s victory in 1939 and ended well for the Western democracies that had not intervened.
When Hitler, after occupying France in 1940, met with Franco to ask permission for the Wehrmacht to cross Spain to attack Gibraltar, Franco said no and put troops in the Pyrenees to enforce his decision.
Unlike Mussolini, Franco remained a nonbelligerent in the world war, returned U.S. pilots who came down in Spain and agreed to a postwar alliance with the United States.
Non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War worked out just fine.