During the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, American foreign policy under Franklin Roosevelt was characterized by what I most generously can describe as inaction. To a certain extent, Roosevelt was reacting to American sentiment, which was isolationist in reaction to World War I, Europe’s unpaid war debt, and domestic economic conditions initiated by the 1929 stock market crash.
However, in three successive years, 1935-37, Congress passed — and Roosevelt signed — a series of Neutrality Acts. The Neutrality Act of 1935 prohibited the shipping of arms to nations at war, including the victims of aggressions. The Neutrality Act of 1936 renewed the law of the previous year with additional restrictions, e.g., no loans could be made to belligerent nations. The Neutrality Act of 1937 limited the trade of even non-munitions to belligerent nations to a “cash and carry basis,” forcing the nation in question to use its ships to transport goods to avoid American entanglements on the high seas.
The Neutrality Acts and FDR’s foreign policy affected American reaction to the most famous proxy war of the 20th century, the Spanish Civil War. The United States, along with Britain and France, sat this one out.
A proxy war results when opposing powers use third parties as substitutes for fighting each other directly.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was between the Republicans, who were loyal to the established Second Spanish Republic, and the Nationalists, a rebel group led by General Francisco Franco. In actuality, it was a war between the communist Soviet Union, supporting the Republicans, and Nazi Germany, supporting the Nationalists. Both supplied money, personnel, and materiel to their proxies. Spain became the proving ground for weapons and tactics which would be used in World War II. Both sides had foreign volunteers, America’s contribution being the anti-Nationalist Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
The Syrian civil war started in 2011 as the Syrian version of an Arab Spring protest against President Bashar al-Assad and his Baathist Party.
Like the United States in the 1930s, the U.S. and the Obama administration has been non-interventionist, and at times laudatory of Assad.
In April 2007, in an effort to undermine Bush foreign policy, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to Syria and pronounced Assad is “ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel,” taking both Jerusalem and the Bush White House by surprise.
On April 27, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when asked on Face the Nation whether the United States would intervene in Syria, said “no.” Clinton said the elements that led to intervention in Libya — international condemnation, an Arab League call for action, a United Nations Security Council resolution — were “not going to happen” with Syria, in part because members of Congress from both parties say they believe Assad is “a reformer.” The basis for Clinton’s assertion about Congress is not certain, but the media reported that the characterization was hers.
Since Clinton’s statement, the situation has drastically deteriorated, prompting calls, particularly by Sen. John McCain, for the United States to intervene for humanitarian reasons, as it did in Libya, to arm the rebels, and to impose a no-fly zone.
The administration up to now has resisted such calls. Last August, reacting to intelligence reports suggesting the Assad government might be preparing to use chemical weapons, Obama declared that were the Assad government to move or use large quantities of chemical weapons, it would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus.”
Weeks ago, British and French intelligence reported that the president’s red line had been crossed. Reluctant to accept such a finding, Obama said the United States should independently confirm the crossing of the red line. Last week it did, painting Obama into a corner. The U.S. has agreed to give lethal weapons to the Syrian rebels, has moved F-16s and a Patriot missile battery into Jordan, and is considering a no-fly zone and taking in Syrian refugees.
During the U.S. hiatus, the nature of the war in Syria changed. There are now elements of a conflict wider than a political uprising. It has become part of a millennium-old war between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Sunnis are the vast majority in Syria, but Shiite Iran has sided with Assad, a member of the pro-Shi’ite Alawite minority. Having brought in its proxy army, Hizbullah, Iran is now reportedly planning to send 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria.
On the Sunni side, Al-Qaida is in Syria, Turkey is giving assistance to the rebels, and Saudi Arabia — the center of the Sunni world — plans to supply the Syrian opposition with anti-aircraft missiles.
On the geopolitical front, Russia — Assad’s arms supplier — has boosted its naval presence in Syria, and is sending new missiles to Syria, while criticizing the United States for deciding to support the rebels.
Two years ago, the United States. could have supported nonsectarian protestors trying to democratize Syria. Supporting the Syrian rebels today carries more risk because the nature of the conflict has changed. The Wall Street Journal says Russia, Iran, and Syria are playing to win while Obama is playing not to lose. “We know how that usually turns out,” the newspaper editorialized.
Welcome to the 21st century’s version of the Spanish Civil War.