The New Non-Intervention: Syria and the Spanish Civil War

May 31, 2013

Will al-Assad become the new Franco? Michael Petrou argues that the West must learn from its past mistakes in order to build a better future.

According to Canadian foreign correspondent Michael Petrou, history is in the process of repeating itself.  As a bloody civil war rages between a dictator supported by fascist regimes and politically moderate opposition groups abandoned by the West and forced to accept aid from known radicals, the ongoing Syrian Civil War grows eerily similar to the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War.  In 1936, Franco was backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  In 2013, Al-Assad is backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.  Abandoned by Western democracies, the Spanish Republic was forced to turn to the Stalin’s Soviet Union, radicalizing the war.  Similarly, the Salafi Islamists have taken a more prominent role within the Syrian opposition forces, as they provide the support that the West does not. Petrou argues that we can break the cycle:

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.

Petrou is not the only journalist to notice these parallels.  A recent article in the New York Times examines the parallels between Syria and Spain, citing American, Canadian, Spanish, and Syrian experts who corroborate these apparent likenesses.

To read more click here and here.

To read previous Volunteer posts on the Syrian Civil War, click here, here, and here.


3 Responses to “ The New Non-Intervention: Syria and the Spanish Civil War ”

  1. Lise Vogel on June 1, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Hello everybody,

    The posting of this article on the ALBA Blog has provoked an interesting discussion on the FFALB listserv.

    If you are not on the FFALB listserv please contact me at:
    and I will add you so that you can see (and participate in) this discussion of historical parallels.


  2. Daire Bulson on June 5, 2013 at 11:41 am

    It is the Syrian opposition that is being backed by “fascist regimes” of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan. i’m not clear on Turkey though. If we’re talking democracy, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraq (yes, Iraq is backing Syria), Iran, and Russia are far more democratic than those Arab monarchies.

    Afghanistan in 1979 (not condoning the Soviet invasion, but US intervention really help?) and Somalia in 1991 (against Siad Barre) are far more relevant models of the Syrian situation. I’m not fully sure about Libya just yet- it’s too early to tell, but things aren’t looking to bright after Gaddafi’s fall, are they? Arming radicals, extremists, religious fundamentalists, warlords, drug cartels against the legitimate government (instead of a diplomatic or power-sharing compromise) is a good idea, huh?

    I urge the Western powers to eschew imperialist intervention, before it causes more fucking harm than good!

    Do you really think the Western powers would’ve wanted to help Spain’s leftist government in the Spanish Civil War?
    Trust me, if the Spanish Civil War had occurred in the Cold War, the CIA and possibly MI6 would have been overjoyed to help the fascists topple Republican Spain.
    It was purely fear of their fascist rivals that kept them from moving against the Republicans (enemy’s enemy is our friend)
    Once the fascists are out of the way (weakened, and controllable, not gone-> Spain, Portugal), their old socialist and communist “allies” are now their new targets!

  3. Reid Palmer on June 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    Hello all,

    I’m glad that my post on ALBA has stirred such a passionate conversation! First, I would just like to clarify that my job at ALBA is to find articles about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades online, summarize them, and post them to The Volunteer’s blog. The blogs I post do not necessarily represent my opinion or the opinion of ALBA, rather the opinions expressed by the articles themselves. I try to keep away from making political statements as much as I can (which is often quite difficult given the subject matter). I apologize if my post seemed to be advocating any course of action in the Syrian Civil War, which was certainly not my intent! Given that I was hired to write about how the Spanish Civil War is being talked about in the modern media, I didn’t include the broader discussion of Western foreign policy as I didn’t see it as relevant to the themes I was attempting to comment on.

    As for the debate over the parallels between the two conflicts, I was mainly interested in the fact that the media was drawing connections between the two conflicts. Indeed, this debate has been going on for at least a couple months now. Even Pat Buchanan wrote a piece around a year ago which, in my opinion, did no justice to the SCW or the Lincolns who laid down their lives for the Spanish Republic (to access his article and the rebuttal, you can find links at the bottom of my most recent post on Syria and the SCW). Although I think that the Syrian Civil War and the Spanish Civil War are FUNDAMENTALLY different conflicts and that drawing too many parallels is “simplistic, absurd, superficial, lazy, limited, and a few other adjectives,” I do think that an exploration of some of the parallels, especially the impact of foreign volunteers on what began as a civil war, can be an interesting thought experiment at the very least. Again, I’m not trying to say that the IB/ALB or the Spanish Civil War has anything to do with Syria today, especially considering the fact that many of the International Brigaders considered themselves pacifists going in and coming out and the world situation in 1936 was much different than that of today (although the Iranian news source “Press TV” did refer to FSA commander General Salim Idris’s “make-believe Abraham Lincoln brigades of foreign fighters.” Obviously Iranian propaganda has not read their SCW and ALB history books. Here’s the link: I was mainly interested in the fact that the media was drawing connections between the two conflicts. I am not trying to justify any policies on Syria, especially considering how little I know about it.

    As to Mr. Kailin’s point on how I referred to the USSR as a group of “known radicals;” I was trying to both paraphrase Michael Petrou while pointing out that many people in the West during the 1930s saw the Soviet Union as a group of ‘radicals,’ which did result in the brutal suppression of known and suspected CPUSA members throughout much of the 20th century (which is not to legitimize the current groups sneaking arms into Syria). I’m really sorry that I came off as a “good old anti-Communist.” That was definitely not my intention, and the United States has long suffered from unnecessary panic about the CPUSA, resulting in many horrible policies and the pointless suffering of many innocent people. However, while I do understand the sentiment behind your comment that I was “utterly [distorting] the nature of the Spanish Civil War,” I believe that talking about the Spanish Civil War, and especially the Lincoln Brigade, can have some positive results, even when the context is distorted (or just plain wrong as the in the case of Reagan). I’ve just finished my third year at Oberlin College and you’d be amazed by how many students know nothing about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade or even the Spanish Civil War in general, especially considering how many students consider themselves communists or Marxists, yet hopefully articles like this will get them asking questions and encourage them to educate themselves on the truth about the volunteers. Honestly, I try my best to tell my friends and acquaintances about these brave men and women and by wearing my black beret with a Popular Front star sewed on while playing “Jarama Valley” on my harmonica around campus, but I can only accomplish so much. Also, as a Canadian citizen, I’m not a huge fan of spreading US military force (or Canadian military power for that matter) around the world.

    I hope this clarifies things a little bit. Sorry that this post was on the longer side, but thanks for reading! And thank you Lise Vogel for letting me join in on the conversation. I’ve read so much about the FFALB in my research on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and it’s so great to see the group still doing so strong. I’m honored to be a part of it.

    Best wishes, Salud, and Vivan Las Brigadas Internacionales!

    Reid Palmer