Homage to Latakia: Comparing Syria and the Spanish Civil War

Why non-intervention isn’t an option
A man walks in front of a burning building after a Syrian Air force air strike in Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus, January 27, 2013. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic - RTR3D1JQ
Time to bomb Syria?
Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

I’m guilty, perhaps, of seeing too much of today’s conflicts through the lens of the Spanish Civil War. I spent years of my life immersed in studying and writing about it, and it shaped the way I think.

And yet the lessons from that tragedy continue to reverberate, even if they are largely ignored. The primary one is that fascism cannot be appeased. Few openly dispute that today, given the near-universal acceptance that the Second World War was a good and necessary war, and that we waited too long to confront the fascism behind it.

Instead, we pretend fascism isn’t there, to justify not fighting against it. We sneer at those who use the term to describe the Khomeinists in Iran — although that state’s demand for subservient conformity, its murderous suppression of dissent, and the oppression it visits on its Baha’i religious minority doesn’t leave room for a lot of other equally accurate adjectives.

We ignore the Taliban’s bloodlust, their ethnic and religious supremacism, and we say they are in fact Pashtun nationalists, or conservative Muslims, or anti-imperialists, or something else we cannot understand because we are Western and they are not and it’s arrogant for us to even try. And so we abandon their victims and congratulate ourselves on not making the same mistakes as George W. Bush.

Another lesson from Spain, for those who choose to look, concerns the fallacy of non-intervention. That was the policy adopted by the democracies — including Canada — in 1936, when the Spanish general Francisco Franco, backed by his allies Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, launched a rebellion against Spain’s democratically elected government that eventually toppled it and enslaved the country.

We said it was a Spanish conflict, a civil war, and should be decided by the Spaniards. It wasn’t. The democracies might not have intervened, but other powers did. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany picked one side; Stalinist Soviet Union picked the other.

When the war began, the Communists were a minor force within Spain’s republican coalition. Then Spain’s presumed democratic friends deserted it, while the Soviet Union sent weapons and men. Soviet and Spanish Communist power consequently grew. By 1937, the Soviet NKVD and its Spanish allies ran secret jails in Madrid where they murdered political opponents from amongst their supposed anti-fascist comrades.

Which brings us to Syria. It’s been two years, some 80,000 deaths, and hundreds of thousands of displaced. What began as a democratic uprising has become a civil war. Those against doing anything about it have cycled through various arguments, all of which miss a basic point. Non-intervention isn’t an option, because intervention is already happening. Saying you’re against intervention in Syria is like standing in the middle of a blizzard and saying you’re against snow.

The Iranians are backing dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that usually concerns itself with rocketing Israel or preparing for the same, has dispatched fighters to Assad. The opposition is a diverse group, but what seems clear is that that the Salafi Islamists among them are gaining strength. Of course they are. For two years, they’ve been getting money and support from Gulf Arab states, while the more moderate factions fighting Assad have received basically nothing the West.

Oh, maybe that’s not fair. The United States is sending “non-lethal” aid, because when it comes to knocking a strafing MiG jet fighter out of the sky, nothing beats a pair of night vision goggles. Canada is footing the bill for some refugees’ tents. Maybe we’ll speed up the refugee process for Syrians fleeing Assad. It’s not exactly a stirring expression of solidarity: “Your struggle is our struggle, and after you lose it, we’ll help you find an apartment in Mississauga.” John Baird should stitch that on a banner and march under it the next time he visits the Middle East.

But at least all this sitting on our hands has given time for a more coherent isolationist pitch to take shape. After years of fretting about the nature of opposition, now it does look a lot more unsavoury than when the war began. Our timidity has become a self-reinforcing excuse. Non-intervention weakened the hands of Spanish democrats, and it does the same to Syrian ones.

It didn’t have to be this way. We could have backed our natural Syrian allies when they were stronger. Doing so is now more complicated and difficult but still necessary. After two years, it’s a fair assumption that even if Western intelligence agencies are befuddled by the exact makeup of the opposition, the Turks and Jordanians probably have a pretty good idea. The more moderate elements of the opposition should be identified and given the weapons they need to prevail. There are escalating options on top of this: a protected safe haven on the ground; air strikes; a no-fly zone. The Syrian rebels have not asked for foreign troops, and I’m not suggesting we offer them. But a negotiated peace is not imminent. This war will end when one side wins. If we care about the outcome, we should be willing to shape it.