Between 1936 and 1939, the Spanish Civil War condensed the awful drama of the 1930s into one conflict. Spain was where left-wing illusions about Stalinism went to die, where Hitler’s war machine tuned up for the Blitzkrieg, where aerial bombardments of civilians and politically motivated “cleansing” were normalized. It was a proxy war for the totalitarian powers, a magnet for volunteers from around the Western world, and an object lesson in the impotence of Europe’s liberal democracies.
As with Spain, so now with Syria. Once again we have a divided country bled by an ideological proxy war—this time between the Salafism of the Gulf states and the Twelver Shi’ism of the Iranian regime, with other regional and global powers hovering in the background.
But unlike the nearly five-year-old conflict in Syria, the Spanish Civil War actually ended after less than three years of fighting. Franco’s nationalists had won.
In part, this difference is actually a grim sort of good news for the world. One reason Spain’s civil war ended quickly was the sheer effectiveness of the military aid the Axis powers sent to the nationalist cause. Spain proved (or seemed to prove) the effectiveness of total war as a tool of ideologically motivated statecraft: The left was crushed, Franco’s regime established, and looking from afar Adolf Hitler could draw an obvious lesson for his own terrible ambitions.
In Syria, the lessons are very different. The war is endless, the factions barely competent, and neither main ideological force invested in the conflict seems capable of actually winning it.
Neither Tehran nor Riyadh can look at Syria and see a template for regional expansion or grand ideological victory. That, in turn, makes a Middle Eastern version of the massive conflict that followed the Spanish Civil War seem unlikely.
Of the powers involved in Syria that are strong enough to start a wider war—Russia, the United States, France and Turkey—it’s not at all clear what they would hope to get out of it. The West can barely decide which Syrian faction we should bomb. Russia’s brinkmanship with Turkey is a show of toughness with no clear strategic objective attached.
That doesn’t make a blundering sort of war impossible. But none of the outside powers seem to want responsibility for anything.
Which is happy news relative to where things stood in Europe as the Spanish Civil War was winding down. But if Syria is (probably) not a harbinger of a full-scale Third World War, it is a harbinger of a different set of evils—institutional collapse, permanent disorder, and the inability of global institutions to master the problems they supposedly exist to solve.
If the war in Spain previewed an era of totalitarian aggrandizement, the war in Syria has exposed the essential hollowness of nation-states.
If the war in Spain was a proving ground for Eastern Front-style total war, the war in Syria is a training ground for Paris-style terrorists.
If the war in Spain demonstrated that Hitler and Stalin were happy to step in when a liberal center failed to hold, the war in Syria demonstrates that Pax Americana is cracking and no power or alliance is remotely prepared to take its place.
If the war in Spain was a dress rehearsal for World War II—well, Syria is probably not a rehearsal for anything. It’s the main event, and nobody can foresee when it will end.•
Douthat is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to email@example.com.