Having started as a popular uprising against a despot, the Syrian crisis has become a full-fledged civil war with potentially serious consequences for the future of the Middle East.
Although history seldom repeats itself, on occasions, parallels can be drawn between different events. Thus, without equating the rival sides involved at the time with those fighting today, the Syrian crisis shares some features with the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
As in the Spanish one, the Syrian civil war is fought between remnants of a weakened regime and breakaway units from the regular armed forces. In Spain, the regime was a Communist-dominated set-up backed by Stalin. It promoted secularism in defiance of Spain’s attachment to the Catholic faith. The al-Assad regime in Syria is a proto-Fascist set-up waving the banner of secularism against the Sunni Muslim majority.
Ironically, al-Assad is backed by the Khomeinist regime in Tehran which claims to be based on religious foundations, and Vladimir Putin who hopes to cast Russia as a standard-bearer of “true Christianity” with Moscow playing the “Third Rome”.
In the Spanish Civil War the rebels, initially led by Generals Jose Sanjuro and Emilio Mola, attracted support from Italy and Germany. The Western democracies stayed on the sidelines in the name of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of independent nations.
Great Britain which at the time had the leadership of Western democracies argued that there were no good choices in Spain. Victory by the Communist-dominated regime would strengthen the Soviet Union while a win by rebels would mean triumph for Mussolini and Hitler.
France used another argument for non-intervention: involvement by Western democracies could trigger a larger European war.
As events were to show, the decision by Western democracies to watch the Spanish drama unfold from the sidelines produced exactly the effects they had feared.
Although his protégés lost in Spain, Stalin emerged as the standard-bearer of revolution in Europe. For their part, Mussolini and Hitler interpreted the rebels’ victory as a win for themselves and an endorsement of their theory of “Might is Right”. The Western democracies’ lack of resolve helped trigger the European war they had hoped to avoid.
The Spanish Civil war attracted volunteers from all over Europe fighting on opposite sides. In Syria, too, fighters from several Arab countries have joined the rebels while elements from the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah are siding with al-Assad.
A glance at the map of Syria today reveals striking similarities with the map of Spain in the first year of its civil war. Broadly speaking, the al-Assad regime still controls around 25 to 30 per cent of Syrian territory including chunks of Damascus and Aleppo.
The al-Assad-controlled areas look like an “archipelago” of 13 to 15 “islands” stretching from Suwayda on the Jordanian border to Idlib close to the border with Turkey. The largest “island” is the area between the central mountain range and the Mediterranean, the hinterland of Tartus, the strategic port with a growing Russian military presence.
However, control of a territory does not mean governing it. Thus, in some areas still under al-Assad’s control, normal functions of government have all but ceased.
Elsewhere, the anti-Assad forces control their “archipelago” of 10 to 12 chunks of territory, mostly in the southern and central areas. At least two “islands” close to the borders with Iraq and Turkey could be regarded as “liberated zones”. Here, too, control does not mean effective government. In fact, as in Spain in the late 1930s, a worst-case scenario for Syria is systemic collapse, turning it into a stateless jumble of territories held by rival factions.
The Spanish Civil War lasted almost three years. Will the Syrian one last that long? That is a hard question to answer because it is like asking how long is a piece of thread. As things stand the al-Assad camp may get enough money and arms from Iran and Russia to continue fighting at the present level for some time. For their part, the rebels too get enough support to sustain the present tempo of their campaign. Al-Assad’s latest claim that he would do “whatever needed” is a coded threat to use chemical weapons. It is also a sign of desperation.
Without outside support no civil war could continue for long if only because the collapse of the local economy makes it hard to keep war machines whirring.
As far as Syria is concerned, two questions are posed.
First, would Western democracies, now led by the United States, be prepared to provide the rebels with a level of support that Russia and Iran would be unable or unwilling to match?
The second question is whether the West and its allies would intervene to stop the flow of weapons and materiel to al-Assad?
Opponents of humanitarian intervention in Syria use some of the arguments their predecessors used over Spain. They claim that Western intervention could lead to a larger war involving Russia, Iran and Israel not to mention Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. However, I doubt that, if the stakes are raised high enough, either Iran or Russia would stay in the game.
Yet, the danger of a regional war by osmosis cannot be ruled out. Like fire, war has a habit of spreading from one neighborhood to another. The longer the Syrian crisis continues the greater that danger. Western pusillanimity cannot prevent a larger regional conflict. A timely, massive and determined humanitarian intervention can. This crisis must not be allowed to threaten the very architecture of regional stability at a time when the Middle East needs to focus on making the “Arab Spring” a success.