By Jeremy Salt – Ankara
In a recent article ('Viewpoint: Echoes of Spanish civil war in Syria', BBC News Magazine, October 9, 2012), Fouad Ajami has drawn parallels between the Spanish civil war and the conflict in Syria. He compares the cruelty of the warring sides, which is accurate enough. He compares the bombing of Guernica with the bombing of Aleppo, which is not. Guernica was a Basque city attacked without warning by German aircraft. Aleppo is a Syrian city infiltrated by thousands of armed men, mobilized, financed and armed by outside governments. Guernica was bombed without warning on a peaceful afternoon. Aleppo has been the site of vicious fighting for months, with the Syrian army and air force being used to drive armed groups out of the suburbs they have infiltrated. The degree to which aircraft have actually been used as opposed to the headline seeking claims of ‘activists’ makes the parallel even more questionable. Most of the damage seems to have been done in ground fighting. Most of the armed men inside Aleppo are not from Aleppo and many are not even Syrian. They are sponsored by the collective calling itself ‘The Friends of the Syrian People’, in much the same way as the fascists and national socialists would have described themselves as the friends of the Spanish people in the 1930s.
And here is the true parallel with Spain, missed or avoided by Ajami, the determination of the German national socialists and Italian fascists in the 1930s and of the combination of ‘liberal democracies’ and gulf autocracies in 2011-12 to destroy a government standing in the way of their strategic interests.
In Spain, opposition to the republican government gave Germany and Italy their foothold, in much the same way as the US, Britain, France and the gulf states used an authentic protest movement to wage war on the Syrian government. In Spain religion was an elemental factor. Spanish Catholics were told by their priests that the republican government - socialist and atheist – was the instrument of the devil. In Syria sectarian hatred of the Alawis is pervasive within the ranks of the armed groups, especially amongst the foreign salafist jihadis paid and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Germany and Italy had Franco on hand. The anti-Syrian collective has the armed groups. German planes bombed Spain and the anti-Syrian collective would have started bombing Syria long ago but for the opposition of Russia and China. What they would have done would have eclipsed Guernica 1000 times over.
The Spanish republican government was elected democratically while the Syrian government was not, but to say this is to miss the main point. Germany and Italy wanted to destroy the republican government because it was a leftist canker close to the heart of Europe, an example that must not be allowed to spread. Knowing that Germany and Italy were arming the Spanish fascists, the British policy of non-intervention and an arms embargo was a supine way of supporting them. Except for some arms supplied by the Soviet Union, which was playing its own game in Spain anyway, the republicans were on their own. Anti-fascist volunteers came from the US (the Lincoln Brigades) and the UK, but the British establishment did not want socialism taking root in Spain any more than Hitler did. It rather liked him. He was the strong man who was going to stop Bolshevism from seeping across western Europe, right up to the point where he brought on the crisis in Czechoslovakia, and even then it was prepared to deal with him.
The prime lesson from the 1930s is that if Britain and France had ever joined hands with the USSR and stood up to Hitler, had they perhaps called his bluff when he sent troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, there might have been no Second World War as well as no bombing of Guernica. By blocking an open military attack which could have ended in a regional war and much worse, given the actors and interests involved, as well as destruction and loss of life in Syria on the scale of Iraq, Russia and China have done what Britain and France should have done in the 1930s. There are the parallels and the lessons to be learned. There is no paradox in the fact that the ‘liberal democracies’ have behaved with as much (if not much more) violence and disregard of the law as the national socialists and fascists did in the 1930s because they do it all the time.
Ajami describes Syria as the ‘minority regime’; the ‘dictatorship’; the ‘godless regime’ (repeating the war cry of the armed groups and the ranting sheikhs in Saudi Arabia and Qatar); the ‘tyranny’; the ‘brazen’ regime, all of it a caricature of more complex realities. Ajami claims there is war between ‘the dictatorship’ and the ‘vast majority of the population’. He produces no evidence that the ‘vast majority’ is at war with the government, leaving aside the question of whether it is accurate even to describe it as a dictatorship rather than a deeply entrenched authoritarian system with interests not necessarily or automatically the same as Bashar al Assad’s.
The notion of a ‘Sunni-majority country’ conquered by the Alawis is a sectarian cliché. The Baathist government could not have survived over decades without coopting the Sunnis in business and government. The majority of people demonstrating in support of the government in the mass rallies held across the country last year were Sunnis. The majority of soldiers in the Syrian army are Sunnis. If they are so aggrieved, if they are feeling so conquered, why haven’t they crossed over to the opposition? Amidst such turmoil, why would they stick by the government? Why have defections been so few at the political and military level despite the cash on offer from the gulf states? How is it that the army has held together despite the battering it has taken? Could it be because its loyalty to the country is greater than individual adherence to a sect and that Syrians – the majority - are correct in seeing this not as a Sunni-Alawi war but as a project fomented from the outside to destroy a government which is Iran’s strongest regional ally?
There is no evidence that the majority of Syrian Sunnis are with the armed groups or the outside governments backing them. The peaceful domestic opposition certainly is not, even while demanding the formation of a ‘transitional’ government. The referendum held in February and the elections held in May were not perfect but were still unmistakable signals that most Syrians want a negotiated end to the crisis gripping their country.
Ajami refers to the ‘magical alignment of the stars’ which resulted in Britain, France and the US riding to the rescue – the ‘cavalry’ he calls it although anyone familiar with happened as a consequence might prefer calvary – of the Libyan people. Like the Americans riding into in Iraq to repair and protect, rifle in one hand and wrench in the other, as Ajami once wrote, they were apparently just good guys chasing out the bad. Yes, the Arab League flashed a green light for the aerial attack on Libya, but this toothless body simply did what it was told by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and regretted what it did once it saw the scale of the destruction.
As for the Americans, the US policymakers who ‘did’ Libya, and here Ajami is very aptly using the language of the rapist, warned that Syria would not be another Libya and in this at least they were right.
The killing of Qaddafi came as ‘vicarious relief’ for ‘the Syrians’, writes Ajami. If true, not for ‘the Syrians’, only for the armed gangs already massacring and kidnapping across the country and thirsting for the day when Bashar’s body would be dragged through the streets. There was nothing magical about happened in Libya. Sirte was pulverized by British, French and US aircraft, Qaddafi was slaughtered, his supporters in Sirte were massacred and those who fought for him near Misurata were ethnically cleansed. What was magical about any of this? The air assault was grim and it was brutal, and it left behind another broken country on the Middle East map. There is no security even in Tripoli. Only now is the United States showing signs of nervousness at what it did in backing the salafi jihadists who played a key role on the ground under the umbrella of its jet fighters and missiles. So it is okay for them to kill and destroy in Libya or Syria but not where they might next turn their attention, against those who used them. That cannot be allowed.
There is no ‘magical alignment’ in Syria any more than there was in Libya. The country has been savaged at the behest of those who want to bring down its government for reasons that have nothing to do with the aspirations of the Syrian people. This is the exercise of brutal power politics, irresponsible, bereft of law or morality, and therein lies the parallel with the attack on Spain in the 1930s. Not that Syria is the only parallel. For exactly the same reasons the US government decided to destroy the Allende government in Chile in the 1970s; the socialists had to be stamped out and they were; in both cases, and in many others, in Latin America and around the world, a dictator came to power who crushed the people for decades.
- Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.