What we can learn about the conflict in Syria from the conflict in Spain
The Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There are many striking similarities between the Spanish Civil War and the current Syrian Civil War, even though more than seventy years separates the two. Whether looking at the fractured makeup of the fighting groups or the international assistance provided, the two conflicts are quite similar.
The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, during the tumultuous period of Spain’s failed “Second Republic” — a republican regime that lasted from 1931 to the end of the war in 1939. General Francisco Franco and his group of Spanish nationalists began the war to fight for a centralized government in Madrid, as well as to stop the spread of Communism throughout Spain.
The war was fought between two sides: The Nationalists, led by General Franco, and the Republicans, which was made up of many different groups without a unitary leader. All of the Republican groups fought for the anti-Monarchical and anti-Nationalistic cause. Franco and his army were on the Nationalist side, along with the Monarchists, who believed in the absolute power of the Spanish royal family as well as the Church. Supporters of the Republicans were often called Nationalist Fascists, whether or not the term was accurate. Franco enjoyed limited military support from both Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy, and Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany. Many people from around the world, mainly the United States and Europe, flocked to Spain to fight in International Brigades against Franco. George Orwell, the famous writer, was one volunteer in the fight against Fascism.
On the side of the Republicans were the Communists (the Partido Comunista de España [PCE]), the Socialists (the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista [POUM]), the Anarchists (the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo [CNT]), and many other smaller groups. The PCE was a Communist faction that followed a Stalinist ideology and took orders from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The POUM followed a Trotskyist ideology. In addition to fighting the Nationalists, these Republican groups fought among each other as well.
In Syria today, President (and dictator) Bashar al-Assad is waging war in order to remain in power. Assad has held the position of president since his father, who was also president, died in June of 2000. One month later, he ran unopposed and became president on July 17th. Assad was re-elected in 2007 with 97% of the vote, again unopposed. In 2011, during the Arab Spring, the Syrian people began to protest Assad’s regime in large numbers. Assad brutally quashed the demonstrations, sending in tanks and arresting rebels.
A number of military groups fight against Assad, similarly to the case of the Spanish Republicans. First is the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This is a coalition of many small brigades who all fight against Assad. Some of its affiliates fight alongside Islamic groups, but as a whole, the FSA has taken a more moderate stance, separate from jihadist rebel groups. Also fighting Assad is the Islamic Front. This group was formed from seven Islamist groups and commands 45,000 fighters. The goal of the Islamic Front is to “topple the Assad regime completely and build an Islamic state.” In 2012, part of the Islamic Front broke off to form a new group, the Syrian Islamic Front (SILF). SILF fighters range from moderate Islamists to very conservative extremists. Lastly, there are the jihadist groups: the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Both groups are offshoots of al-Qaeda, formerly led by Osama bin Laden. The goal of the jihadist groups is to establish a state ruled entirely by Shari’a, a legal framework based on the Quran and the Hadith.
In both the Spanish Civil War and the War in Syria, the USSR (or Russia) has played a large international role. During the time of the Spanish civil war, the USSR supported certain Communist groups in their fight against Franco. Due to the help of the USSR, Nationalists came to call all rebels “Reds.” It is important to question the motives of the USSR for becoming involved in the conflict. As stated earlier, people from all over the world flocked to Spain to be a part of the fight for, and against, fascism. The USSR was no different. Many fighters became disillusioned with the PCE, believing that it focused too much on Stalinist communism and the USSR itself than the true Marxist revolution that they hoped for.
Today, Russia similarly lends support to President Assad and his regime. They do so along with Iran, giving both financial and military aid. Both leaders, Putin and Assad, have been called dictators and have a strong hold on the politics of their respective countries. Putin’s support of Assad is in stark contrast to the goals of the United States, which supports the moderate rebels. The US provides airstrike assistance to the rebels and has solicited other countries to send aircraft as well.
A topic important to both conflicts is the issue of how power is held: centralized or decentralized. In the Spanish war, Franco fought for the most centralized government possible, with no regional identities throughout Spain. He desired a unified Spain where everyone spoke Castillian Spanish and pledged allegiance to the government in Madrid. Along with the Republican forces already discussed, there were brigades made of people from different regions in Spain, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country. These regions believed that they ought to be independent from Spain. Before Franco came to power, Spain was fairly decentralized, with certain regions having a large amount of autonomy.
According to Joshua Stacher, the governmental system in Syria is quite different from the one in Spain. It was decentralized before the outbreak of the conflict. This begs the question of whether or not President Assad needs to centralize in order to win the war. Certainly, his troops have rallied around him and fought to keep power in his hands.
The fractured nature of both the Spanish Republicans and the Syrian rebels is surprisingly similar. In both situations, one side has consolidated power and works as a unitary actor, and the other side is an amalgamation of differing ideologies and viewpoints, all working against a common enemy — the powerful opposition leader. Often, the struggle between Republican groups in the Spanish Civil War was a greater struggle than between Republican groups and Franco’s forces.
Infighting similar to this could spell disaster for Syrian rebel troops. There is evidence that infighting has already begun in Syria and will escalate. Syrian groups, as well as the United States and other countries, have been carrying out airstrikes on ISIS in an attempt to eradicate them. Although they are bombarded from all sides, ISIS will never consider joining forces with other rebel groups in an attempt to gain power.
Yet another aspect of the fragmentation of rebel groups is the massive confusion that encircles them all. Of one brigade of Spaniards, George Orwell wrote: “they seemed not even to know the one thing that everybody knows in Spain -- which political party they belonged to. They thought they were Anarchists, but were not quite certain; perhaps they were Communists”. Orwell himself did not know exactly which party best suited him. He initially fought for the POUM, but had a desire to join the Anarchists. However, if he joined the Anarchists he would not have been able to fight in Madrid, so he needed to join the International Column and get a letter of recommendation from a Communist. This is reminiscent of the various rebel groups in Syria. Many, such as ISIS and the Islamic Front, desire a state controlled by Shari’a. According to the BBC, “The Islamic Front does not include al-Qaeda affiliates like ISIS, but its charter welcomes foreign fighters as ‘brothers who supported us in jihad’”. Similar to the events in Spain, many Syrian rebel groups welcome outsiders to join and swell their forces.
Fighters in Syria need to understand that fragmented groups do not fare well in wars against unitary groups. In order to win against a powerful dictator, groups must unite and overcome rather than fight each other and eventually lose to their opposition. Overall, one can learn much about the war in Syria by reading about the war in Spain. If groups band together and put aside their differences, they can emerge victorious. However, if they split and fight each other, the enemy will win. The Syrian rebels would be wise to remember Santayana’s passage; remember the past, or repeat it.