The Spanish Civil War As Historical Precedent for Syria

Foreign fighters in Spain and Syria
| March 8, 2021
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Today we have a guest article by Frank Plumb. He addresses the Spanish Civil War, the conflict in Syria, and how they correspond geopolitically — there are a sobering number of similarities for those willing to see them. I use the term conflict not to subordinate the violence and significance of what’s going on there, but because “Syrian Civil War” is neither sufficient nor completely accurate.  Such a limited term is no more able to capture and convey the totality of that particular multi-national multi-ethnic, multi-religious, shitshow of shifting alliances than “chocolate with sprinkles” can explain Little Debbie’s Cosmic Brownies.

I believe Syria has the greatest current potential for becoming an international Fuck Around and Find Out moment of any extant tension in the world though the Donbas and Nagorno-Karabakh could sure turn sporty).

Plumb’s exposition makes a cogent and accurate comparison that demonstrates very clearly what should have us all concerned, and.  DR

⚠️ Note: This article was written during the latter days of the Obama Administration. The issues raised by the treatise when originally published remain, not least due to the composition (and actions) of the current administration. 

(L) Foreign volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: (R) Foreign volunteers in the Syrian Civil War.

(L) Foreign volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: (R) Foreign volunteers in the Syrian Civil War. Unknown photo credit, unknown image colorist. (If you can identify the photographer or provenance, please contact us and let us know.)

 


 

The Spanish Civil War As Historical Precedent for Syria

History and Proxy-to Direct Conflict Redux

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” G. Santayana

Background: Spain to Syria Analogs

As the conscious thinker reflects on the geopolitical situation in the world, he must always use a historical perspective to color his thoughts. The uninitiated rarely understand that…

• decisions in political capitals far away do directly affect their lives, that
• global leader decisions do eventually manifest in the lives of the common man, and that
• the Political, Military, Economic, and Social destabilization which seems to be accelerating, will affect the common man.

The conscious man can prepare and anticipate when the waves that start on foreign shores crash on our beaches. Fortune has always favored the prepared mind.

We face multiple historical parallels between the interwar period and the current state of affairs. In particular, the events which started everything on both timelines were the Great Depression (1929) and the Great Recession (2008).

Both of these events were massive economic downturns exacerbated by pseudo-socialist economic policies of the left. The political reluctance to “suffer the hangover” and follow Keynesian economic policies instead, is putting the globe on the exact same path of the 1930s.

There is a rarely covered event from 1936 to 1939 that was the direct precursor to World War II: the Spanish Civil War.

The similarities to Syria, while not a perfect match, are in my opinion are striking. In the Spanish Civil War, there was political suppression that led to rebellion. Reprisals and atrocities against unarmed combatants. International volunteers to fight on the side of the “oppressed”.

This was followed by massive majorities of the global powers fighting by proxy. Most importantly the western democracies, whose feeble leaders typified by Neville Chamberlain, acted without conviction or courage. This unprincipled leadership emboldened aggression. By showing a lack of courage with halfhearted measures exacerbating the suffering, but then compounded the damage by offering strategic concessions to the aggressors.

In this article, I will lay out how the situation is very similar to our current US involvement in Syria. Although simplified, the players in the Spanish Civil War have very similar modern representatives in Syria.

Current events are unfolding in a way that is eerily similar to the Spanish Civil War. We need to recognize that emboldened aggressors, and weak Western leadership may very well plunge us into the same abyss of 1939-1945.

Italian volunteers Spanish Civil War

An Italian gunner of the Corpo Truppe Voluntarie, “Corps of Volunteer Troops” dispatched by Mussolini to assist Gen. Franco’s Nationalist forces. Initially deployed as an “expeditionary force”, the formation was quickly renamed. Italian forces variously engaged troops or proxy troops of the Soviets, British, and Americans, Spanish Republicans, and various other nationalities of soldier from the International Brigades, including French, Polish, and Irish.

 

Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia

Members of the Hezbollah-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq “League of the Righteous” trained and equipped by the IRGC’s Qods Force. The group is one part of an “alliance” known as Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyah fi Suria, and is just one of Iran’s instruments in the war. Iranian proxy forces, particularly the “Fatimiyoun Brigade”, include Shi’a fighters from Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. They have variously been in conflict with the al-Nura Front (the former Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), US and Coalition troops, Turkmen fighters of the Murat and Abdulhamid Han brigades, Kurdish units, members of Turkish “private security firms” and Turkish-backed local militias, the Free Syrian Army, Lebanese regular army forces, Iraqi security forces, and others. Veterans of the Fatimiyoun Brigade are also reportedly working as Iranian proxies in Afghanistan.

Syria qua Spain: The Players

The Republicans, contrary to modern American Republicans, were socialists, leftists, and progressives. A formative violent suppression by the ruling class against a workers’ rebellion in 1934 fostered dissent that was the base of Republican power. I

In February of 1936, they formed the Popular Front which promised large-scale reforms to the long-standing Spanish landowners who exerted disproportionate control. The Republicans represented the majority of the population and were very cohesive in ideology. Although they were different groups and factions, they all wanted the old order of the Spanish hierarchy gone.

Spanish Republicans = the Sunni bloc

The Sunni-based insurgent groups are the modern equivalent of the Republicans. In this group is also the Kurds and Free Syrian Army groups. Strategically they strive to overthrow the Syrian government or annex portions of Syrian territory.

This key goal is why the groups are aligned. All of them want the Assad government gone. The Sunni groups mostly came together after a violent suppression of their political aims by the Assad regime. Although the Sunni groups are aligned, they have dramatically different end states in mind. They are very different groups individually and are often fighting each other.

Such fighting is common between break-away Syrian Army elements and the Al-Nusura Front. ISIS and the Kurds are commonly fighting each other. But all of these elements are anti-Shia and anti-Assad. That is what binds them. They are supported by the United States, EU, Turkey, and Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Spanish Nationalists = the Assad Regime

The Nationalists were the wealthy Spanish landowners. They comprised the military establishment and the business class, bound by the common thread of the Catholic Church. In the haves and have-nots, the Nationalists were the haves.

Spain was a country where wealth disparity was steadily growing. The Nationalists controlled all aspects of society. From education to the economy the nationalists set policy, and with the military at their back, they acted with impunity. They were led by General Franco.

The Assad Regime is the modern equivalent of the Nationalists. They are in effect are the mirror image of the role the Nationalist played in Spain. They control everything in Syria and have going back a few generations.

The Alawite minority has ruled over the Sunni majority with minimal Sunni representation. Many of the smaller ethnic minorities also supported the Assad regime as they feared the Sunni majority. The Assad regime is also supported by Hezbollah and Shia-based groups to include the Iranian Government.

Most importantly the Assad regime is backed by Russia. The Russians view Syria like the United States views Israel: their number one ally in the Middle East.

Germany found in the Spanish Nationalists an opportunity to support another group of authoritarians. While not a national socialist regime like the Germans, the Nationalists were led by General Franco. The military strongman that Hitler saw himself as reflected in General Franco. The Germans also were in the military buildup prior to World War II.

This was an opportunity to get their forces, directly and indirectly, involved in combat operations. This was to provide critical military operational experience to the German military. Strategically, this gave the Germans the opportunity to test the will and resolve of the Western Powers. Russia (in Syria today) plays a very similar role to the Germans (in Sain then). Putin is a far smarter and experienced leader than Hitler. He also lacks the psychological disorders of a genocidal egomaniac. Their support of the Assad regime is historical in nature. Historically, Syria is to Russia as Israel is the United States. The Russians have supported Syria for well over 50 years.

The Russians, much like the Germans in Spain, have already provided financial, logistical, advisory, and combat support to the Syrians. Like the Germans, the Russians are using the Syrian situation to test the resolve of the Western Powers.

The Western Powers then and now

This group of countries is largely the same now as in the 1930s. In the 1930s the group included Great Britain, France, Mexico, and to a smaller degree the United States. These governments openly supported the democratically elected socialist Spanish Republican movement. There were also literary, social, and volunteer movements within these countries that actively supported the plight of the Spanish Republicans.

Then as now, these countries support the democratic aims of the people. One key element is that in the 1930s Great Britain was the global power led by Neville Chamberlain. Now the United States is the global power, led by Barack Obama. [Update: former Obama VPOTUS Joe Biden]

The parallels between the countries and their leaders are strikingly similar.

Syria-Civil-War-map

Map of the Syrian Civil War via SouthFront, 08 March 2021.

Global Environment

There are also very striking similarities between the global situation in the 1930s and the 2010s [2020s].

Then as now, the global economy had yet to recover from a global economic crash. The Great Depression which started on Black Friday in October 1929 is mirrored by the “Great Recession” of 2008 [and arguably the crippling economic impact of COVID-19].

Then as now Keynesian economic policies mixed with a lack of political leadership created a lasting malaise. Politically in the Western Powers, then as now there is a reluctance to engage in military actions needed to prevent expanding violence. Then as now, belligerent nations are forming formidable military powers in Asia and Europe in the face of the Western Powers projecting weakness.

The Events

Genesis of Genocide: Spain

The Spanish Civil war started in earnest when the Republicans were democratically elected.

Multiple events led up to the election, including the violent suppression of labor movements, and economic troubles. General Franco led the most notorious of these in Asturias.

Governmental mismanagement and strife continued, eventually resulting in the Republicans taking control in February 1936. There were many rumors that the Republicans were going to take retaliatory actions against the nationalists. By July of 1936 Nationalist military leaders had rebelled but failed to consolidate power. Both sides rapidly consolidated power in their respective regions.

Moorish soldier Spanish Civil War

A Moorish rifleman, likely Moroccan of the Cuerpo de Ejército Marroquí, in the service of Gen. Franco c. 1938.

 

Russian volunteer in the combined Gozarto Protection Forces/Sootoro.

Reportedly a Russian volunteer in the Qamishli Sootoro (“Syriac Protection Offic”), a pro-Assad militia composed primarily of local ethnic Armenians and Assyrians.

Genesis of Genocide: Syria

The Syrian Civil War started when the underrepresented Sunni groups were protesting for reforms.

Assad responded with violent suppression. Soon thereafter Sunni groups broke away from the military and formed the Free Syrian Army and other Sunni Groups. Many of these Sunni groups end up becoming elements within ISIS and the Al-Nusra front.

Like the Republicans in Spain, they are a coalition of groups that were consolidated on removing the historical power structure. The Alawites, Shia, and other minority groups consolidated on the other side. These minorities have long feared the Sunni majority.

Elements within all of these groups have shown little reservation in conducting combat operations without the slightest regard to civilian casualties. In many cases, savage treatment of the enemy and civilians is the preferred technique.

ISIS is willing to execute, rape, and torture anyone. Not to be outdone the Assad regime uses all types of weapons on targets without civilian considerations. The “barrel bombs” being dropped into neighborhoods or the devastation being levied against Aleppo are primary examples.

The Spanish Civil War had its fair share of suppression of populations, executions, and the overt targeting of civilian populations. In Spain, there were constant attacks on non-combatants and execution of prisoners by both sides. The Nationalist estimates were that approximately 1 million people were killed in the fighting. Estimates as of late 2020 put casualty figures at more than 500,000 dead in Syria with an estimated 13 million (over half the pre-war population) displaced.

How The Foreign Powers Got Involved

In Spain, when the Nationalists’ revolt stalled outside of Madrid, fighting became a static battle of attrition. The Nationalists realized they were outnumbered and did not have control of national assets. They needed external support.

Franco, being a general, found very willing support in the National Socialist powers of Germany and Italy. Hitler and Mussolini both fashioned themselves as militant leaders. In Franco, they saw a mirror image of themselves.

More importantly, they saw an opportunity to test new military technologies and techniques. They would be able to refine tactics and equipment prior to their expansionary adventures. In particular, they would have an opportunity to fight against forces supported by the Soviets and British – the two nations primarily targeted in Germany’s intended expansion.

The Republicans soon found themselves facing German and Italian equipment and troops supporting the Nationalists. They quickly reached out to foreign powers as well. The Soviets and Western Powers took little time offering their support.

While the Soviets were willing to offer weapons and equipment, the Western Powers, led by the United Kingdom, offered various, lesser levels of support. This was particularly the case in the United Kingdom, which was fully committed to the policy of appeasement.

This lack of support reinforced Hitler’s opinion of British weakness.

Many people from the Western Powers volunteered to fight for the Republicans. International volunteers to the Sunni group fighting in Syria are the counterpart to those westerners. The various Sunni combatant organizations aren’t just indigenous Syrians, but foreign fighters from across the Middle East and much further away.

Groups like the Kurds, Free Syrian Army, and ISIS are also bolstered by foreign fighters and in some cases receive substantial foreign aid. In particular, the Sunni groups are funded, equipped, and armed by Sunni nations and the United States.

How Situations Escalate

Some of the nations involved in the Spanish War did more than act through proxies. This applies mostly to the Germans, but others were directly involved to at least some degree as well. In Syria today the Russians are directly involved in combat operations supporting the Assad regime and are not the only foreign nation-state actors involved.

Such escalations are a direct result of the supported faction losing ground and the supporting nation having to make up the capability gaps.

It was very routine for the Germans, their air force in particular, to engage in direct combat operations. In the Spanish Civil War, the Western Powers and Russia to a lesser degree knew that having combat forces engaged was a recipe for disaster. They did their best to avoid direct engagement with German or Italian troops.

With World War I a recent memory, the Western Powers were extremely reluctant to get directly involved.

This is one of the stark differences between the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War. The Western Powers are keen to have direct combat engagement.

Our level of direct involvement with Sunni forces and its duration will not be discussed here. However, what I will say is that when you have opposing armed forces augmenting the proxy forces fighting each other it is a recipe for disaster.

US and Russian troops meet in Syria

Scene described as “An American soldier and [purported] Russian MP on the M4 highway after convoys crossed paths.” via Reddit [The word “purposed] used here due to RUMINT that Russian SOF, intelligence, and other specialty personnel initial entered and continue to operate under the guise of an MP assignment.]

How will the Russians escalate their posture when an F18 drops a JDAM on an Assad military unit that has embedded Spetnaz advisors? How will President Obama and Secretary act when bodies of Green Berets or Navy SEALs are shipped home?

Russian special forces in Palmyra, Syria

Russian troops reportedly from the GRU patrol Palmyra.(Via social, @world_at_war_33)

We have advisors embedded with Free Syrian Army units. These are the same kind of units that are being bombed by Russian SU-24s.

President Obama’s reckless call to bomb the Syrian Air Force should be cause for great alarm. [And such action is no less fraught today.]

The Syrian Air Force uses the exact same aircraft as the Russian Air Force, and they are co-located on the same bases. One mistake could start what would effectively be World War III.

This would end up being a war without clearly defined strategic goals, against an enemy who has been rapidly advancing its C3I, small arms, doctrine, and Air Defense systems. Other than advancing recently accelerated support for Sunni nations, there is no foreseeable positive strategic end state for even a limited conventional engagement with the Russian military.

When the Western Powers Balked

During the Spanish Civil War, once Germany and Italy got involved, the tide of battle shifted in the Nationalists’ favor. With the Luftwaffe and German Falschrimjagers taking on active roles in the fighting the Republicans were steadily being driven back. The Soviets still were very supportive of equipment. The Western Powers supported with volunteers and political support. But it eventually became apparent that without direct support that the Republicans were going to lose.

Neville Chamberlain utterly failed to recognize that the Germans saw Spain as little more than a dry run to practice their combat techniques, though it was also an opportunity to gauge the resolve of the Western Powers and the Soviets.

Hitler clearly recognized that the Western Powers lack actual fortitude for combat. That his primary adversary was going to be the Soviets. The Spanish Civil War made this very clear.

The same thing happened during the Obama Administration. President Obama showed a lack of resolve for any combat operations that did not support a Sunni nation. Cruise missiles were fired at Houthi rebels, bombs dropped on Assad’s troops, and action was taken to oust Gaddafi, but the US and the Western powers failed to act in Ukraine. This was clearly telegraphed by Obama’s amateur “red line” comment. The making of such a threat without the slightest indication of resolve to follow through with it green-lit the unconventional warfare campaign to seize the Crimea.

Barack Obama, just like Neville Chamberlain, clearly projected a lack of consistency, clarity, and resolve. It is difficult to believe his Democratic successor (and former VPOTUS) will handle things differently. Such political ineptitude is frequently outmaneuvered and often blatantly disregarded by belligerents. Ukraine today is like the Sudetenland of the 1930s an example of just how far a belligerent can go without a response.

Then as now, the West projects weakness. Weakness invites further aggression.

Spanish troops of the Free French Army

Veterans of the Spanish Civil War, forced to leave the country after the defeat of Republican forces, fighting in France as part of the LeClerc Division. They previously served in Tunisia and elsewhere (including in partisan forces in Italy and Yugoslavia).

 

Turkish backed Syrian-mercenaries-in-Nagorno-Karabakh

Syrian veterans of the Syrian Civil War paid, equipped, and deployed to Azerbaijan to fight against Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh. Syrian nationals hired by “private” Turkish concerns are also deployed to Libya (via Armenian news site Gagrule and the Hawar News Agency).

The Spanish Civil War: Precursor to WWII

The weakness projected by the west during the Spanish Civil War laid the foundation for World War II.

There were considerable displays of appeasement by the Western Powers. They started by surrendering the other territories without cost or consequence. These were attempts to persuade the Germans in particular, to stop supporting Franco and the Nationalists in Spain.

Germany never stopped its efforts and basically got two for one. They shifted the balance of power in Spain so that Franco would win and enjoyed the concessions given to stop supporting an effort effectively assured of victory already.

This steeled Hitler’s opinion that the Western Powers were foolish and weak. He could then focus his efforts on the Soviets as they had actually shown some resolve in Spain. Hitler always looked at the Soviets as his primary enemy.

This assessment was accurate. The Western Powers were shown to be weak in the Spring of 1940, while the Soviets slugged it out with the Germans for 6 years.

The Western Powers, who held significant military advantages, showed they lacked resolve and could be fractured. Instead of forcing the Germans and Nationalists to the bargaining table, their half measures resulted in green lighting Hitler’s genocidal rampage across Europe. Today in Syria we face the exact same scenario.

We can accelerate our combat efforts, but to do so risks a limited to all-out war with Russia. There is no really good foreseeable outcome in combat operations against Russia.

We could do what the Western Powers did: appease, then withdraw.

This is almost certainly an invitation for further aggression.

When viewed in the light of the Sunni vs. Shia split, Western Power withdrawal would result in a destabilization that would result in a regional war that would have global consequences.

In my opinion, the only way forward is to get the Sunni and Shia factions, nations, and supporters to the table. The United States and Russia would act as brokers of a deal.

This outcome would most likely destroy the old Sykes-Picot framework that has been the foundation of the region but that is what must happen.

It is time to recognize the Middle East is not, nor ever has been, based on British colonial constructs. Only by rearranging the region based on their belief systems is the only answer to the regional woes.

Any other answer leads to war and history is clearly telling us this.

About the Author: Frank Plumb is a retired Special Forces Warrant Officer with 24 years in total service. Mr. Plumb also advises members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Department of Defense on Small Arms Technologies and Emerging Threats. He is the founder of Plumb Precision.

 

1 Comment

  1. CJ

    While there are parallels, Barak Obama allowed the US to be manipulated into intervention in Syria. While it’s true that Assad was suppressing dissent, he was not using full military intervention in the various sectors of his country. It wasn’t until the “Arab Spring” nonsense that the US started arming the Syrian al Qaida to fight against Assad. Weapons, by the way, that were later used against Americans.

    There are lots of “strong man” leaders throughout the world suppressing dissent, but US troops aren’t in those countries helping the rebels. Statist will also point to ISIS as a reason to be in Syria, but the US was at one time supplying weapons to them too.

    Don’t want a broader war involving opponents that CAN strike the US? Get out of Syria.

    Reply

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