History’s Discordant Rhyme: Understanding the Spanish & Syrian Civil Wars

Marching Toward Hell

“History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.” – Mark Twain

A people in rebellion. The old order in the process of being swept away. Towns, neighborhoods, and families are divided. On one side, the forces of the status quo have arrayed behind a strongman dedicated to preserving order through the barrel of a gun, if necessary, whereas the forces of change–of revolution–engage in brutal acts of terrorism to further their cause. Children are orphaned. Husbands are killed. Wives, sisters, and mothers are brutalized. The Western powers seem either too indifferent or aloof to understand the severity of what’s occurring. In the meanwhile, rival states with revanchist worldviews have entered into the morass, so as to protect their preferred clients. All the meanwhile, the conflict persists and worsens, and the stage is set for the still more horrific world war that is yet to come. Many may assume that I am talking about present-day Syria, but I am actually referring to Spain of the 1930s. As this article will prove, these two conflicts have more in common than we should be comfortable with.

A fighter for the Free Syrian Army stops to pet a cat during a lull in hellacious fighting during the Syrian Civil War.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, no one could have guessed that the Second World War was but a few short years away. The chaos and vicious nature that had dominated the fighting in the Spanish Civil War made it one of the most iconic wars of the twentieth century. Indeed, it not only defined a generation of some of the world’s greatest artists, but so too did it allow for the Soviets to hone their skills at ideological proxy warfare, as well as to give the Nazis (and, to a lesser extent, their future Italian allies) critical experiences in honing their military tactics and technologies. The Stuka dive-bomber, Panzer tanks, and rapid mobility that became synonymous with the Nazi way of warfare in the Second World War were all deployed and perfected in the Spanish Civil War.

Stuka Dive Bomber
This is a capture of a Nazi Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber taken during combat operations in the Spanish Civil War. This plane belonged famed Luftwaffe Condor Legion, which cut its teeth flying in support of Fascist elements during the Spanish Civil War.

Upon the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the world was technically at peace and reeling from the devastation of the Great Depression. In Spain, revolutionary Communists had taken up the call of revolution to try and topple the conservative elements of the country. Indeed, at this point in time, Communist revolution was spreading like wildfire throughout much of Europe. While Germany and Italy had not gone Communist, both the ruling Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy came about because of Communism’s rise. In the Spanish Civil War, these ideologies would play out their genocidal warfare on the battlefields, in the cities, and among the Spanish people. The Spanish Civil War, the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935, and the Japanese conquest of Manchuria would all serve as destabilizing appetizers that would set the table for the destructive main course that was the Second World War.

Could this be one of the two fabled North Korean units fighting for Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the ongoing Syrian Civil War today, much like how the Nazis and Fascist Italians fought together in support of the nominal Fascist strongman, General Franco? Photo courtesy of AFP/KCNA via KNS

In much the same way that the Spanish Civil War played as a proving ground for both the ideological and practical forms of warfare, it would seem that today’s Syrian Civil War is playing a similar role. This reminds me of a saying that is often attributed to Mark Twain that, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Today’s Syria shares many similarities with yesteryear’s Spanish Civil War. Both were bloody civil conflicts defined by the carnage that the populations of the countries endured over a protracted period of time. Also, as noted above, they are both places where the rising states of the day went to test their newest forms of ideological and military capabilities.

Iranian commandos deploy to Syria
Here are images of elite Iranian commandos operating in support of the Assad Regime

Lastly, these conflicts exacerbated stifling tensions that were already straining the existing world order. Between the Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the Russian annexation of Crimea, I believe, that the Syrian Civil War may be the conflict that sparks the next great power war. While there is no guarantee that I am right, I do believe that the patterns are serious enough to warrant people being aware of what is going on in the world, and where it all might lead to. This article will point out the disturbing similar patterns and analyze what they may mean for the United States and its allies going forward.

War is a Transition Period in History

Most wars are about one of two things: either a group wants to fundamentally alter the status quo by challenging it, or a group wants to reaffirm the international order that exists already. Before each war, however, there are a series of crises that continually test the limits of the preexisting international order. Before the Napoleonic Wars, there were the various revolutionary agitations throughout Europe–particularly France–that set the stage for the rise of Napoleon. In turn, despite his seeking to institute a new monarchy with himself at the top, Napoleon believed that he was an embodiment of those revolutionary ideals. As such, he took the battleground to remake the world in that image.

After that war, the old order was reaffirmed with the peace at the Congress of Vienna. However, soon thereafter, the Congress of Vienna system was being tested. A series of wars and crises plagued the world until, finally, the world was lit aflame in the killing fields and trenches of World War I. Such crises that precipitated the Great War were the crises of German Unification, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the Agadir Crisis, just to name a few. The primary issue was how to rectify the presence of a large, unified, German state in central Europe, when so much of the European political order rested on the notion that there was no strong state between France and Russia. Otto von Bismarck and the Prussians changed all of that when they unified as much of the Germanic peoples as possible under the aegis German Empire. Every action taken from thereon was predicated about making the international system comport to the reality of a large and powerful (both economically and militarily) German Empire. Indeed, to a lesser extent, World War I was the apotheosis of that great question. The failure to properly answer the question of what to do with Germany at the end of WWI, set the stage for the Second World War.

The Treaty of Versailles, like the Congress of Vienna, or the Treaty of Westphalia (signed in 1648 and created the modern nation-state system following the Thirty Years’ War) was a similar attempt to reestablish a new world order by the victors of the First World War. However, while the fighting had been horrific, and the Great War ended in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and German Empires, the problem was that the victorious Allies (the British and French Empires, as well as the United States, and also the Italians and Japanese) could not definitively conclude the conflict on the battlefield. Indeed, General John J. Pershing, the commanding officer of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe warned his French and British counterparts that if they did not march on Berlin, then the Germans would be back to fight in a second World War. As with many things, General Pershing was quite prescient. In fact, WWI ended when the Germans decided they could no longer fund their offensive operations. It also ended when the German military took direct control in Germany and effectively deposed the leader of the German Empire, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Once in power, realizing that they could not defeat the combined forces of Britain, France, and the United States, they opted to surrender in the hopes that they could live to fight another day.

agadir the times
Here is a capture of a news story from 1911, reporting on the Agadir Crisis. Courtesy of The Times.

At that point in time, the introduction of American forces into the conflict on the side of the Allies meant that the Allied armies not only got new soldiers to throw into the meat-grinder (or a panoply of new resources to use in the war effort), but it also meant that it got inherently American ideals of what the postwar era should look like. These ideals were best summed up in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. These points, essentially, spelled out that, in order to prevent future wars of similar magnitude, the world powers must foster global democracy, encourage collective security, and seek to stabilize international relations with an overriding international legal system and a reliable adjudication system. These anticolonial and anti-imperial notions, combined with the dubious prospect of collective security, caused a great deal of consternation among America’s allies, and helped to compel Germany to the bargaining table. The Germans, it would later be revealed, miscalculated Wilson’s ability to not only get his wartime allies to go along with his plan, but also to get the American people to support indefinite overseas commitments, in order to prevent any theoretical future wars.

Thus, the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 did not quite yield a peace agreement, so much as a craft a 20-year armistice agreement. The British and French would go on to exact punitive measures against the Germans that would help to pave the road for the rise of Nazism. Meanwhile, Soviets would go about their business seeking to stir global Communist revolution. The Japanese were ultimately insulted by the treatment they received at the conference from their wartime allies. The Italians would also be upset with the allies reneging on their previous commitment to hand over portions of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Italians as repayment for their involvement in the war.

Soon thereafter, the world would be gripped by the Great Depression. From that terrible experience a new wave of hostility would arise. During the Interwar Years, the Nazis, Japanese, and Italians had all made significant investments in rearming their beleaguered militaries. These three powers were intent on gaining through military brinksmanship what the Treaty of Versailles had denied them through diplomacy. Their build-ups were ostensibly aimed at reaffirming their positions in the world system, expanding their reach, and challenging the rising tide of Communism. The Soviets, meanwhile, also engaged in limited bouts of aggression directed against their neighbors. As these groups rearmed and prepared to enter another round of World War, the scrappy newcomers decided to test their tactics, methods, and ideas in the fiery cauldron of the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and was fought between Communist revolutionaries (and much of the Spanish Left) and the more traditional nationalists (and other conservative, Right-Wing parties). In this war, the stage would be set for not only the coming Second World War, but also for the ideological battles that would dominate the Cold War and divide the world in half between Capitalist and Communist for a half-century.

Spanish Communists
Here are Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War flying the Communist flag. During this period, the entire Socialist Left of Spain was infiltrated by Soviet agents of influence.

In the case of the Spanish Civil War, the revolution was actually sparked by conservative Spanish general seeking to stop the spread of Communism. You see, the King of Spain had been removed from office in a bloodless coup and his rule replaced by a republican government. Yet, that government was weak and widely disliked by both elements of the Left and the Right. Eventually, the Left would gravitate toward Communism and the Right would gravitate somewhere between Fascism and monarchism. When the rebellious generals launched their revolution, they managed to take large portions of the Spanish countryside, as well as its colonies in the Canary Islands and Morocco. However, the Spanish republican government soon armed the citizens, and the Communist industrial workers in the cities managed to rebuff the rebellious generals’ advance on the cities. Thus, the civil war became a protracted civil conflict, with part of the country in the hands of the generals and the other part of the country in hands of the Communists.


Hitler und Franco.
General Franco of Spain with his patron, Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s military had helped Franco’s forces win the Spanish Civil War. However, when it came time for Franco to reciprocate during the Second World War, their friendship soon eroded. It’s just more proof that the best excuse for not partaking in a destructive world war is to have a staggering civil war.

Similarly, the Syrian Civil War was a conflict that was supposed to have a quick end. As I documented in Stabilizing the Situation in Syria,” few observers believed that the regime of Bashar al-Assad would survive as long as it has since the Syrian uprisings in 2011. What’s more, those who did think the Assad Regime would survive have been equally mystified by Assad’s inability to resolve the civil war, even with the help of foreign powers like Iran and Russia. Soon, foreign powers were intervening on both sides of the conflict, both for the Assad Regime (Iran and Russia) and for the Syrian rebels. While there were more secular and democratic rebel groups, none were more organized or effective in combat than the various Jihadist groups that had arrived in the country. These groups, notably the Islamic State, were exceptionally vicious. What’s more, it is believed that foreign powers, such as Turkey, lent aid to both the Islamic State and other Jihadist groups rather than the more moderate Syrian rebels.

The involvement of foreign powers, each with their own agendas, exacerbated the conflict and morphed it from a Syrian civil affair into a endless, multi-sided Syrian Civil War. Like the Spanish Civil War, the Assad Regime controls certain portions of the country, while the rebels seem to possess still more parts of the country. The fighting between all of the groups is violent, it is catastrophic, and it has ultimately resolved nothing. For the government, they retain control over the ethnically Alawite regions of the country, since they themselves are Alawites. For the rebels, their strongest areas of resistance are in the Sunni region of Syria, since they are themselves Sunni Muslims.

Also, like the Spanish Civil War, not only are smaller ideological powers, such as Iran and North Korea involved, but so too are larger regional and global powers. As I articulated in The Weichert Report’s ongoing symposium on “How to Defeat the Islamic State,” (here and here), the real war in Syria is between a millenarian, puritanical form of Sunni Islam, known as Wahhābīsm (to which groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State belong) vs. an apocalyptic, messianic version of Shia Islam known as Mahdīsm. The former group is represented in the conflict by groups like al Qaeda, al Nusrah, and the Islamic State. These Jihadist groups are supported by traditional state actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In the case of Saudi Arabia, they are seeking to appease the Wahhābī hardliners that comprise much of their population all the meanwhile preventing the Shiites from expanding their influence across the Middle East. For the Turks, they are insistent upon reestablishing the Ottoman Empire of old by toppling secular dictators in the region and supporting Jihadist groups in order to achieve this goal. Also, as members of Sunni Islam, the Turks are opposed to a Shiite expansion of influence in the region as well.

Vlad and Bashar
Bashar al-Assad supplicating before his senior partner, Russian (Tsar) President Vladimir Putin.

The Assad Family is a member of the Alawite clan, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Thus, they have found support from Iran and its proxies in Hezbollah and Hamas. What’s more, the Russians have intervened on their behalf, elevating the conflict, and morphing it from a Syrian civil war over increased rights into a global conflict of implacable ideologies and imperialistic nationalisms. In much the same way that the current Syrian Civil War is, in fact, a toxic mixture of competing religious ideologies coupled with rival imperial goals, so too was the Spanish Civil War such a conflict.

What began as a genuine internal Spanish matter quickly metamorphosed into a microcosm of the Second World War that would soon follow. The Fascists and Nazis supported Franco’s Nationalists, as they believed he represented a bulwark to Communism. The Republicans, all of whom were of the Left to begin with, were overrun with Soviet agents of influence (in a process that was known to Soviet agents as “entryism,” which is when Soviets would enter Leftist political groups and agitate them to such a degree that move from Socialist reformers into full on Marxist revolutionaries). Hitler and Mussolini, ardent enemies of Communism committed whatever resources they could to stem the rise of Communism.

Much like the current battle between Wahhābīsm and Mahdīsm, which are competing views of Islam, Nazism, Fascism, and Communism are all of the Left. As Joshua Muravchik and Jonah Goldberg detail in their books on the subject, Nazis, Fascism, and Communism are all mutated forms of the kind of political system that Marx and Engels espoused in The Communist Manifesto. Thus, the fight was more nuanced than other conflicts. Indeed, since these groups were vying to be the dominant representative of their ideology, they fought especially hard, both sides believing each other to be heretics. This is also true in the war between Wahhābīs and Mahdīs today in Syria. All the meanwhile, the forces of conservative traditionalism–as represented by Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin of Russia–conspire to ensure that Wahhābī radicalism does not topple more governments and destabilize the entire region even further (although Iran’s involvement means that the region will be destabilized no matter what).

A general view of the shattered ruins of the Basque city of Guernica, Spain, shown, May 1937, after being bombed during the Spanish Civil War. The city was attacked by planes from the German Luftwaffe and the Italian Fascist Aviazione Legionaria. Courtesy of the Associated Press.

In the Spanish Civil War, new technologies were tested, new alliances were formed, and new ideologies were honed in the crucible of combat. What the various participants in the Spanish Civil War learned on the battlefields of that horrific conflict were internalized by these different actors and applied in different, yet, effective, ways in the Second World War. As such, tactics that became staples of the German war machine during WWII–such as Blitzkrieg (or, lightning warfare) and terror bombing civilian populations–were practiced with devastating élan in the Spanish Civil War. Meanwhile, the ideological limits of the Nazi-Fascist alliance were stretched in their ceaseless quest to stem the spread of Communism.

wahabismIn the Syrian Civil War today, a similar pattern is in play. Let us call the forces aligned with Assad “Conservative Imperial Nationalists” (Russians, Iranians, and Assad) vs. “International Revolutionary Wahhābīsts.” Of course, there are other factors and players involved, but this is the general international tenor of the war. The former group has relied heavily on honing in the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, terror bombing, cyber warfare, small unit engagements. The latter group has perfected its use of Terrorism as a winning strategy; it has also refined its reliance on asymmetrical warfare, cyber recruitment and coordination (the so-called Cyber Caliphate), and a litany of other horrific tactics. Taken together, these ideological and technological ways of warfare will become ubiquitous in the next great power war.

And, make no mistake, the level of conflict and instability throughout the world–coupled with the fact that there is virtually no power willing, or able, to effectively curb these agitations globally–means that we are headed for another great power conflict. From the Balkans to Iraq; from Georgia to Ukraine; from Tunisia to Egypt (the Arab Spring), these actions have conspired to create a perfect storm for catastrophe. Much like the Spanish Civil War of old, I believe, the Syrian Civil War today is going to be the place from whence the next great power conflict originates.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution & the Age of Disproportion

This last section will briefly assess what another great power war might look like. Far too often people merely look at the political, economic, and military dangers of warfare. They rarely look at the scientific and economic context of great power warfare. What’s more they rarely look at the evolution of warfare itself within a cultural context. Let’s just start with the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, shall we?

This is the Napoleonic style of warfare: both armies line up before each other and take turns shooting at each other.

When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, the West was in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. New methods of manufacturing, coupled with new business practices for corporations that, in some cases, had global reach (and much political pull) were changing everything. This coincided with the political revolutions that had been underway since the Enlightenment. Concepts such as secularism, democracy, and human rights were becoming more than just theoretic concepts in philosophical books. They were becoming rallying cries for change all across Europe.

Although he did not create conscription, his reliance on it, coupled with his tactics in warfare, and the weapons that he used, and the ideology that he lived by were all revolutionary forms of warfare.

Consequently, technology was rapidly progressing. Gunpowder had revolutionized warfare. However, Napoleon introduced a new concept: he democratized war. Whereas most Europeans had fought in a quasi-Medieval organizational way: armies were formed by kings and were comprised mostly of experts, making them small, but highly effective fighting units, that tended to fight seasonally (at least in the case of the German duchies). However, Napoleon introduced mass conscription into the French military, exploding the ranks, and making all citizens engage in some form of warfare or another.

From this, the Napoleonic style of warfare was created, which fundamentally changed the way armies fought each other in battle. It also had profound effects on the rules of warfare for Europeans as well. Thus technology had crafted ways of manufacturing better equipment, more affordably, an en masse. Meanwhile, the smashing of traditional class and political structure in Europe, had allowed for the democratization of warfare. Lastly, these changes allowed for warfare to become deadlier, more widespread, and less contained to just the so-called elites. It became a matter for all citizens and industries to partake in.

The concept of Total Warfare is most certainly a byproduct of the democratization of warfare, made possible by the Industrial Revolution and the ideals initially espoused in the Enlightenment.

This, then, explains the deadly excesses of the American Civil War. The American Civil War was, quite possibly, the greatest example of the Industrial Revolution on display. Indeed, the economic component of that conflict was over industrialization (as represented by the North) becoming a threat to the agrarian (mostly slave-reliant) economy of the South. This fact cannot be overlooked.

Battle of the Somme, 1916. World War I was so brutal because the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution had caught up with the warlike nature of Mankind, yielding terrifying results. I worry that the same type of conflict in this current Fourth Industrial Revolution may be upon us soon. Our technology has outstripped our ability to regulate our worst instincts.

The World Wars are also shining examples of the Second Industrial Age on display. The apotheosis of this fact was the advent of nuclear warfare. The blurring of lines between civilian and soldier had been occurring since at least Napoleon’s democratization of warfare. The advent of heavy, long-range artillery, the increasingly rapid movement of armed forces, the development of airpower, all meant that civilians were becoming more and more at-risk. Plus, the intensified reliance on industrial methods to buttress war efforts on the part of various nation-states meant that civilian factories were now primary targets in wars. Airpower gave armies the destructive reach to truly threaten civilian populations in enemy states.

Nuclear arms were the apotheosis of this trend. Nuclear weapons do not respect national boundaries and there are next-to-impossible to defend against. The increasingly advanced nature of societies meant that industrialization was integral to any strategic advantage that a power may have in the world. Plus, the incredible destructive power that nuclear arms conferred upon those who possessed them meant that the human need to dominate others would become exacerbated. Thus, the Cold War came about and civilians and military alike were forced to live under the specter of Mutual Assured Destruction for decades. In fact, the factories and civilian metropolises of both the United States and the Soviet Union would be the primary targets for both powers’ nuclear forces, in the event of the outbreak of warfare between the two powers. This represented a shocking inversion of the old-fashioned (now hopelessly outdated) rules of warfare.

The nuclear bomb marked the apotheosis of the convergence of the Industrial Revolutions with warfare.

By the 1990s, and the end of the grueling Cold War, the world was headed into what many experts call the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Indeed, by the 21st century, most experts consider the Fourth Industrial Revolution to be well underway. If the Industrial Revolutions throughout history have done one thing: they have been to create incredible efficiency between producers and consumers. This is not only true of places like Wal-Mart, where a customer can purchase a high-definition flat-screen television–with all of the bells-and-whistles–for a modest price. It is also true of warfare. Technology and tactics have evolved in which wartime is perpetual and peace is indefinable.

The internet, Globalization, and the cheapening of all products has allowed for modern warfare to become at once more complicated and yet, more easily accessible. Today, for the price of a house in Arlington, Virginia, I can go out and fund another 9/11 Attack. I can spend half-a-million (a little bit more than that if we are talking about North Arlington prices) and cause upwards of $1 trillion of damage to my enemy–with just 19 men, some box cutters, and fake bombs to commandeer the plane and keep the passengers subdued. What’s more, I don’t have to attack their military targets, either. In fact, I would prefer to attack their purely civilian–or “soft”–targets. Technology, economics, and culture have all merged to give human beings increasingly efficient ways of killing many more people with fewer things than they should have the capacity to do.

The 9/11 Attacks cost 3,000 American lives and upwards of $1 trillion over a decade (between the attack itself, the economic fallout, and the subsequent military response). This attack cost al Qaeda (financially, speaking) little more than the price of a house in Arlington, VA today. This is the result of the democratization of war coupled with the democratizing effects of the Industrial Revolutions.

Therefore, Terrorism, guerrilla warfare, Special Forces operations, and Drone warfare have become the ubiquitous elements in modern, 21st-century warfare. What’s more, paradoxically, the ideologies of our time seem to be retrograde: they are deeply rooted in ancient nationalism and religion and their aims–primarily imperial expansion–mirror those of old 19th century colonial empires. This is a concept that is anathema to most postmodern war theorists in the West. Yet, they have been empowered to achieve these goals through asymmetrical warfare precisely because of the disproportionate advantages that the technology of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has granted the world. Think of it as the Wal-Mart Effect of warfare: cheaper goods are more readily available to many more people than at any other time.

All of these elements have been on consistent display in the Syrian Civil War. The pattern is eerily similar to the one the world experienced in the gruesome Spanish Civil War. Just as the style and methods of warfare in the Napoleonic Wars, American Civil War, Spanish Civil War, and the World Wars all reflected the technological, scientific, and economic advances of each Industrial Revolution that coincided with those conflicts, so too will the style and methods of the next great power war feed off of the advances of the Fourth Great Revolution.

Whereas airpower and nuclear arms were the key defining weapons of the last century’s wars, I believe that automation and cyberspace technology will be the integral elements of warfare in this generation. Furthermore, I think that areas like space warfare, biotechnology, and nanotechnology will end up being to the next great war what nuclear weapons were to the last one. Plus, it will be increasingly difficult to tell who is a civilian and who is an enemy combatant, meaning that we should expect the death toll of this conflict to be high. Indeed, even as our wars have gotten better at keeping the death toll of soldiers (at least in the American context) at their lowest levels ever, the death toll and displacement ratios for civilians has, if you’ll pardon the expression, exploded. Therefore, the threshold for warfare has been lowered, technology and weapons have been diffused to more people than ever, and so too has warmaking itself been disseminated to lower levels of society.

Wars are no longer strictly the purview of well-trained armies fighting for King-and-Country. The technology and processes provided by the great Industrial Revolutions have diffused the warmaking capabilities of the state down to regional, transnational, and individual actors. Many claim that we are living in a Knowledge-based economy but we are also living in a Knowledge-based era of Information Warfare. A lone hacker sitting in a park in Beijing can do more damage to a Superpower like the U.S. than any invading army ever could. A North Korean “satellite” launched into orbit, with an Electro-Magnetic Pulse device attached to it, could send much of the world back to the 19th century faster than anything that was witnessed during the hellacious final days of the Second World War. A Jihadist with an AK-47, some body armor, and a truck can kill more people in fifteen minutes than were killed in the opening acts of the Battle of the Somme in WWI.

The nature of modern warfare means that high technology has been made more readily available at cheaper costs. This high tech has been fused with extremely low tech delivery means (as well as ancient ideological notions of ethno-religious supremacy). Welcome to the democratization of warfare in the 21st century. Get ready for disproportionately higher costs upon the attacked by the very cheap attackers.

Apparently, with great advancement, comes even greater risk.


The Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War both represent fulcrum points in the history of their respective international orders. They represent an abject failure of the established powers to assert even a modicum of control over the system that they had spent decades building. This, in turn, exacerbated global tensions, as rising states with revanchist worldviews came to believe that they could run roughshod over the established order. States like Russia and China have done this. Meanwhile, a demographic explosion in the Muslim world led to a serious reassessment of the political order there–and the rise of revolutionary religionists. Secular strongmen were out and rabid Islamists were in.

Over time, the forces of the status quo and the forces of revanchism steadily took opposing corners, intervening in various conflicts throughout the world, in order to ensure that their preferred worldview won out. This has exacerbated the division between these forces, and caused greater resentment the world over. All of this has compounded into the present Syrian Civil War, in much the same way that the divisions of the pre-World War II order played out in the Spanish Civil War. The conflict will drag on, as both sides pour more resources into one-upping the other. Ultimately, the conflict will become irrelevant, as the hostilities have moved far beyond the borders of the conflict zone, and engulfed everywhere else, just as they did with Spain in the run-up to WWII.

Could this be what the next great power war looks like?

But, make no mistake, this is what you are witnessing. The world no longer assumes American hegemony will supersede all issues in the world. Now, the world powers openly question and mock that American power. From the Clinton to Obama Administrations, the U.S. has gained a reputation as a feckless (declining) Superpower. As such, the U.S. can no longer rest on its good name to stem the tide of violence globally and prevent another great power war. It is being challenged on all sides and the U.S. will, unfortunately, have to demonstrate its dominance in conflict once more, lest the entire world order be irrevocably lost to a new spate of illiberal powers. However, I believe, the seeds of these regimes’ self-destruction are embedded within their own structures. Demographics, economics, and politics are all conspiring to prevent Russia, China, Iran, and any other backward authoritarian group from acquiring the kind of long-lasting power they seek. All the U.S. has to do is reinvigorate its defense structure, increase the overall size of its military, be more willing and able to deploy those forces over sustained periods of time, and resist the urge to insulate from the world, and the U.S. could reassure its besieged allies and deter its determined foes globally. But, this is the one thing that the U.S. refuses to do. Therefore, the world is being captured in an increasing inferno between desperate autocrats and ambivalent liberals.

Syria is to the impending next great war what Spain was to the last one: it is a proving ground for the participants of that next great conflict. The next great war will incorporate all of the elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and it will be especially brutal and caustic to the civilian populations of the world. Most “experts” will tell you that there will not be another great power war in our lifetimes. I beg to differ. They were saying the same thing in the weeks and days shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. The world is ripe for a seismic geostrategic event. The limits have been tested and, with Syria, I believe, have been pushed. The world is primed for another great power war.


Thus, Mark Twain’s words are proven true: history may not repeat, but it most certainly does rhyme. While the particulars may be different, the similarities between the Spanish and Syrian Civil Wars are profoundly disturbing. The world, I believe, is primed for another great power war. What follows next will very much depend upon who is elected president in 2016. Yet, even still, I believe that the time for averting this coming conflagration was in 2008, if at all. Indeed, I question as to whether anyone can avert this kind of conflict, given the imperfect nature of Mankind. Needless to say, history does rhyme and its rhythm is sadly discordant.


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