Italian Defense Minister Mario Mauro (File photo / Agence France-Presse)
ROME — Italy’s new defense minister has a dire warning for Europe: The Syrian conflict is looking like a replay of the Spanish Civil War, which was fought between 1933 and 1939 and paved the way for World War II.
“Syria is coming increasingly to resemble the Spanish Civil War,” Mario Mauro, who was named defense minister in the Italian coalition government, told Defense News.
“Lebanon could find itself in a big crisis within days due to the presence of Hezbollah, while Turkey is undergoing its own problems. There are all the elements for this regional crisis to explode,” he said.
“There is the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, but there are also the regional players maneuvering. Muslim fundamentalism is involved, but not central,” he added.
Mauro, whose government took office in April, said the war risked reigniting full-scale hostilities between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq.
“Don’t forget that Iraqis are fighting with Al Nusra,” he said, referring to the grouping of Sunni fighters in Syria challenging the government of Bashar Al-Assad.
What started out as a local civil war in Spain in 1936 turned global as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy backed Gen. Francisco Franco’s forces against the Spanish government, which was backed by the Soviet Union, while Europe’s democracies decided against intervention.
Roughly 93,000 people have died in Syria over the past two years after Sunni rebels backed by Gulf states took on Assad, who has been backed by Iran’s Shia government, by Russia and by Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
After suffering early defeats, Assad has rebounded with a series of victories and appears set to retake the central provinces of Homs and Hama in a conflict characterized by huge flows of refugees and massacres.
“In a moment in which the US does not want to intervene, the responsibility of Europe increases,” said Mauro, who made his comments days before the US announced it would arm Syrian rebels and further reports that the White House was considering a no-fly zone. “Europe must reflect on what it wants to be. Italy is physically immersed in the Mediterranean, which makes it both vulnerable and strategic for the resolution of these conflicts.”
One analyst was doubtful Europe could do much about Syria.
“At this stage, Europe can do nothing without full US agreement,” said Jonathan Eyal, the director of international security studies at The Royal United Services Institute in London.
“However, Europe may squander any goodwill it built up in the Middle East over Libya, given its inaction here.”
Mauro’s analogy with the Spanish Civil War, which has been made before and disputed by analysts on both sides of the Atlantic, was partly accepted by Eyal.
“The analogy is partly correct, given the number of proxies involved, but the difference is that Syria is a sectarian war, not an ideological war,” he said.
“Additionally, all the players involved have a sense of inferiority. The Arab monarchies are on the wrong foot because of the Arab springs, Iran because it fears it could lose its Syrian ally, Hezbollah because it fears being split from Iran and Turkey because it is worried that a break up of Syria would lead to a Kurdish state,” he said.
“This is not a war where the sides are showing off their prowess, in the way the Fascists in Spain showed they were a force for the future. Here you cannot afford not to be involved.”
An Italy-based analyst said the religious element in the Syrian conflict is getting stronger as the sides use religious ties to pull allies into the fray. “As an example, Shiite fighters arrived from Iran and Iraq to defend the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque, which is an important Shiite place of worship,” said Gianmarco Volpe, the head of the Middle East desk at the Centre for International Studies in Rome.
The enmity generated by religious conflicts outstripped the ideological differences of the Spanish Civil War, he said. “After the political wars in Europe, people from both sides managed to coexist, whereas that could prove difficult in Syria, if Iraq is anything to go by. Religious wars appear to generate even more hatred than ethnic wars.”
Russia’s backing of Assad has meanwhile lent a Cold War element to the fray.
“Russia is furious at the West for using international law to do what it wants, as it did in Libya,” Eyal said, “and there is also the sale of Russian weapons to Syria to protect. The West failed to see the extent of Russian entrenchment in Syria.”
Volpe said Russia’s claim it was selling S300 air defense missile systems to Syria was “a diplomatic gesture” aimed at the West.
Eyal concluded that as the Syria war continues, it could come to mirror another conflict more recent than the Spanish Civil War.
“I believe Assad will not be able to restore the authority he had but could remain in power alongside pockets of resistance,” he said. “Syria could become a proxy war that everyone, from Hezbollah to Turkey has an interest in keeping going. As such, Syria could come to resemble Lebanon in the 1980s.”