The tragic parallels of the Syrian and Spanish civil wars: a point of view

Written by Theodore Sami, 23.

[Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert on either of these conflicts, and plenty of the articles, books, and opinion pieces I've read about both wars have done a great service to the art of breaking down immeasurably complex political and military situations. I’m just a passionate student of all things modern history.]

I urge you to take a look into the broken mirror, and tell me what you see

One might shudder at the notion that elements of Syria’s Civil War have historical antecedents, and yet, comparing it to the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 is like looking through a broken mirror: the cracked shards leftover show a partial resemblance that could shock even the most fervent believers of our world’s progress since the dark days leading up to World War Two. By considering both of these conflicts as partial mirror images, anyone is free to see the outbursts of political passion, the failures of the international community, and the dark abysses where humanity should have been. Perhaps this is less than obvious to you reading this, and so I urge you to take a look into the broken mirror, and tell me what

you see.

Above: Robert Capa's mythical photograph capturing the death of a Republican militiaman. There is still a furious debate as to whether or not it's a fake. Nobody knows for sure. 

How much of the left vs how much of the right?

The Spanish Civil War is known for pitting the democratically-elected Republican government, backed by the Soviet Union, against Francisco Franco’s Nationalists, backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Both sides were coalitions though, with the left-leaning Republicans dominated by centrist democrats, but also communists and anarchists, while the Nationalists were conservatives and aristocrats as well as fascists and Catholic militias. Being so politically diverse is probably not a terrible idea in a functioning democracy, but Spain’s was anything but. Ultimately, Franco’s coup against the Republican government in July 1936 was the starting pistol in a race to see which side could get their house in order quickest. An example of this is that the communists and anarchists relied heavily on workers to suppress the initial wave of right-wing revolt, and yet the government of Largo Caballero was too scared to give these people weapons! They eventually took them by force. Meanwhile, Franco had less division to worry about, having disciplined Moroccan soldiers at his disposal, and a relative consensus among his allies as to what was to be done. The differences in the unity of each side would eventually help lead the Nationalists to victory.

Despite the fragmented nature of Bashar Al-Assad’s enemies, they represent a loosely tied rainbow of right-leaning Sunni jihadists, Free Syrian Army soldiers, even Christians and genuine democratic reformers. As was Spain’s case, in Syria too there exists a political faction that is backed today in a similar way that the Republicans were backed in their day by the Soviets. These are of course the Kurds, who have lived in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere for hundreds years, if not longer. They are seen as the most viable partner in the region for the Western Democracies. Until Trump’s policy U-turn due to Turkey’s intervention, they were trained and assisted by US advisors and special forces, mainly to fight Daesh, not Assad. However, I predict they will eventually clash, albeit with indirect US participation as a legacy of their partnership with the Kurds. Assad will no doubt want to secure the self-declared Kurdish region of Rojava, which will likely lead to a tragic war in which he is certain to emerge the victor with Russian and Iranian backing. Various other Sunni majority countries in the region, mainly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are also supporting their own Sunni militias who would no doubt favour a more right of centre government with a religious flavour, though it should also be noted that Spain's Republicans had their own right wing, led my Martínez Barrio’s Republican Union, which had broken away from Lerroux’s Radical Republican Party.

(Above left) Pro-Assad forces with none other than Bashar Al-Assad in the centre. (Above right) The slogan that would come to symbolise the republican struggle throughout the war and in other conflicts. It says 'They Shall Not Pass', taken from Philippe Pétain's identical slogan used at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. We know it today from The Lord of the Rings.

The Strengths of the Right and The Weaknesses of the Left

The Syrian conflict’s 'right'-wing is led by Assad’s Alawite (Shia) minority. 'Right' is imperfect here, as I know Assad's party has its roots in socialism, though it mostly rings true. Assad represents a cult of personality that has existed since his father Hafez outmanoeuvred his fellow Ba’athist ‘allies’ by around 1970–71 after having instigated a coup with them in 1963. Assad Jr’s government of today is, from what I understand, nationalistic, and sits somewhere on the political right. In either case, just like the Nationalists, Bashar heads up a fairly unified political faction compared to the Free Syrian Army. He is backed by Russia, who are protecting one of their last allies in the region, whilst as has been previously mentioned in numerous articles from respected news services, protecting their strategic foothold in the Med.

Like the Republicans, who briefly fought amongst themselves, they lack a unified front that has and will no doubt be their downfall

Assad is also backed by Lebanon and Iran (a Shia majority country), who, like Russia, are invested in shoring up one of their last allies in the region, mainly through the incredibly effective Hezbollah paramilitary group and the IRGC’s Quds Force respectively. Franco also had religious warriors at his disposal known as the Carlists, though they differ slightly as they were also monarchists. In either case, none of Assad’s backers could be considered left-wing; they sit on the right side of the political spectrum, to which degree is anyone’s guess, though certainly not anywhere near the political centre, except perhaps economically speaking.

Assad's opposition, just like the Republicans in Spain, is an incredibly diverse and loosely-affiliated kaleidoscope of left and right-wing factions, who, though ideologically disparate, can all agree on one thing: Assad, the Russians, and the Iranians must go. Again, like the Republicans, who briefly fought amongst themselves, they lack a unified front that has and will no doubt be their downfall, as they could never hope to defeat Assad with Russia and Iran in the equation, a similar tactical disadvantage that benefited Franco thanks to German and Italian support, not least through matériel and air support. The winners of the Spanish and the presumptive winners of the Syrian civil wars have in common a comparatively united political front and, also crucial for a military victory, air superiority and a flow of incoming troops to reinforce Assad’s previously depleted ranks. Assad’s opponents have never been able to charm the Western powers into backing them, no doubt due to religious militias in their ranks (Jabhat al-Nusra etc) and because there just isn't a clear exit strategy, just like the Republicans could never charm enough powerful allies to support them beyond The Soviets and Mexico, and to a lesser degree France as there was a fear of communists on the one hand, and an interminable European war on the other.

The humanity that makes us so distinctive as a species evaporates, leaving only the excesses of our basic instincts

Ultimately, both the Syrian and Spanish Civil Wars have opposing sides that dehumanise one another: Assad calls all those opposed to him terrorists, while in Spain it was simply enough for Franco to utter the words ‘communist’ and ‘anarchist’ to get his allies in line; communism and socialism used to be dirty words that struck fear into any middle and upper class population. What does this mean? It means war becomes even more brutal, with no quarter given to prisoners, executions of suspected sympathisers, and indiscriminate murder of innocents by extension. The humanity that makes us so distinctive as a species evaporates, leaving only the excesses of our basic instincts. We are at the top of the food chain for a reason.

Above: A suspected nationalist spy moments before his execution by firing squad. Note his upright, proud posture in utter contempt of his soon-to-be republican killers. This was a common trait of both sides, with propaganda turning the enemy into a monster, not even human.

Regionalism vs Centralism

Both Spain and Syria have had to deal with fiercely independent regions throughout their respective civil wars and before. In Spain, Catalonia and the Basque region were afforded a high degree of autonomy: the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists took control of Catalonia until they were purged by the communists in mid-1937, whilst the traditionally conservative and Catholic Basques finally had what they wanted, despite having more political and religious beliefs in common with the nationalists. Syria has to contend with Rojava, the Kurdish breakaway ‘state’ that is perhaps the best example of a functioning democracy in the Middle East from what I understand; ironically without any Western involvement (shocker). They’ve created a socialist federal democracy with its own constitution enshrining equality of the sexes and secularism. Like the women of the Spanish left, women also participate in battles on the frontlines in the YPG.

(Above left) Female fighters during Spanish Civil War, most likely CNT/FAI/UGT.

(Above right) Kurdish women fighting for the YPG (People's Protection Units).

Foreign Volunteers

I won’t go too in depth here for the sake of time, though both civil wars featured an enormous influx of volunteers on both sides. The International Brigades are the most famous in Spain’s case, and though there were foreign volunteers on the right as well, the left’s intake was much larger though less organic than one might think. The Comintern had a large part in orchestrating this successful recruitment and PR drive (which still failed to get the Western powers involved, ironically because the Soviets had gotten more involved themselves). In Syria, we have seen countless volunteers join the Kurdish militias, and it goes without saying, many others joining ISIS from all over the world. On Assad’s side, one might class Hezbollah as a volunteer force, though I don’t know of any others except perhaps Wagner Group, a shadowy organisation of mostly Russian contractors.

(Above left) Julian Bell, Virginia Woolf's nephew, who would die barely a month after arriving in Spain in 1937 (Above right) Foreign volunteers embedded in Kurdish forces, Syria. 

These conflicts have a disturbing resemblance to one another: the scale of indiscriminate death and destruction, the treatment of enemies as non-humans, the divided left and a unified right are traits that are common to both wars, yet to go as far as to say these conflicts are the same would be an unjust reductionism that ignores their distinctive stories. What would it say about the world of today if we were to have a repeat of the Spanish Civil War in Syria? Sadly, it seems the Syrian conflict is even more convoluted and brutal. The enmity between Shias and Sunnis (with IS included), the litany of international and internal stakeholders involved; these represent an unfortunate con of conflict in a globalised world: war just gets more complicated. I wonder how much better the Spanish would have fared if Protestants and Catholics had slugged it out, with a Christian terror group thrown in, all while competing foreign nations were carving their own lines in the sand?

What will the world of 100 years from now think?

What is clear is that the ways in which these tragedies manifest themselves have changed little in the almost 100 years since Spain’s brutal conflict. We still see photos of dying people and refugees every day; we read articles of new and old weapons being used to murderous effect; the politics hasn’t changed much, and perhaps neither have the people. What will the world of 100 years from now think? How will they compare the civil war of their generation to Syria?

This contribution was written by Theodore Sami, 23. Visit his profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.