Barry Rubin is the latest to make the misleading and inaccurate comparison between Syria and 1930s Spain (via Andrew). One would think that interventionists would make it a point nowadays not to fall back on lazy 1930s references when making arguments for taking sides in another country’s civil war. The problem here isn’t so much that Rubin’s account of the Spanish Civil War is oversimplified, but that what Rubin means by “the Spanish Civil War of our time” is misleading:
It is an exhibition match between two ideological rivals—Shia Islamism and Sunni Islamism—that both want totalitarian dictatorship but cannot co-exist. It is a testing ground for the conflicts to come.
Totalitarian isn’t really the right word, but that is the least of the problems here. More important, only one of the two rivals Rubin mentions is directly involved in the fighting. Alawites may be an offshoot of Shi’ism, but otherwise they have little in common with Twelvers and even less in common with the religious ideology of the Iranian government. So one side of the Syrian conflict has an Islamist patron, but it isn’t Islamist itself. The Assad regime may be relying on Iranian help, but it isn’t being transformed into a theocracy in the process. Iran is trying to shore up an allied regime, not export its revolution among Syrians. This is quite different from the relationship between the Republicans and the USSR.
Besides, if we wanted to view the Syrian conflict as analogous to the Spanish Civil War, that wouldn’t put the Syrian opposition in the Republican role, but instead would cast them as the Nationalists opposed to the existing government. Even if we accept the comparison for the sake of argument, how is it in the U.S. interest to back the weaker side? Rubin is portraying Syria’s civil war simply as a clash of sectarian forces, so why should the U.S. involve itself in that?
Rubin complains that the U.S. and other Western states are failing to support “moderates” in Syria, which leaves the field to supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood on one hand and the Assad regime on the other. However, he doesn’t explain how the U.S. could support the “moderates” without effectively backing the Muslim Brotherhood at the same time. If there is anything less persuasive than the call to support the Syrian opposition, it is a call to support the weaker elements within the opposition against the stronger forces on both sides of the conflict.