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Title: Guernica in Aleppo: Examining U.S. (Non-)Intervention in the Spanish and Syrian Civil Wars
Authors: Don, Nicky
Advisors: Yarhi-Milo, Keren
Department: Woodrow Wilson School
Class Year: 2019
Abstract: This thesis explores the Spanish Civil War as a historical analogy toward understanding consequences of U.S. intervention policy in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Similar to the communist versus fascist dilemma of 1936 Spain, a key issue regarding U.S. intervention policy in Syria is that neither side aligns with U.S. strategic interests. The Assad regime has committed atrocities and counts Russia and Iran as allies, but the opposition includes terrorists, ethno-nationalists, moderates, and everyone in between. The Spanish Civil War is often used to indicate the failure of non-interventionism as a policy in civil wars. By this argument, non-interventionism denied Western aid to the Republicans (and by extension, communists), but allowed a fascist Germany and Italy to support the Nationalists. In drawing on the Spanish analogy in analyzing the U.S.’s support of Kurdish and moderate rebels in Syria, however, I hypothesize that even limited aid to opposition groups can inadvertently entrench a regime and its allies. In order to investigate this hypothesis, I trace U.S. non-intervention policy in Spain using archival evidence that includes Nationalist intelligence, propaganda from both sides, Basque and Catalan government correspondence, and similar files. Given the U.S.’s support of Kurdish rebel groups in Syria, I then compare the Basques and Catalans’ ill-fated alliance with the Republic, to the Kurdish PYD/YPG’s limited cooperation with Assad in Syria, in order to examine why ethno-nationalist actors may ally with the opposition or defect to the regime. This archival analysis reveals three mechanisms by which limited intervention and policy incoherence can inadvertently empower the regime and its allies, regardless of whether U.S. policy seeks total regime change, or simply behavior modification. First, regimes may view disparate intervention policies (humanitarian, overt, covert) as U.S. state-sponsored and anti-regime, hurting the U.S.’s ability to both credibly signal its intent and mediate the conflict. Second, by prioritizing expansionist threats over threats posed by groups with allies hostile to American interests, the U.S. helps the regime defeat its opposition while leaving the hostile alliance comparatively unchecked. Third, I conclude that insufficient support to ethno-nationalist groups, if given to counter another opposition threat such as terrorism, can backfire and leave the ethno-nationalist group more vulnerable. As the United States looks toward a post-ISIS Syria, the Spanish Civil War provides a compelling schema for understanding how the U.S.’s rational decisions to counter expansionist opposition threats, be they communism or terrorism, can help a regime to win its civil war, and for predicting what decisions may follow as a result. Through the strengthening of regime allies hostile to the United States, the analogy further suggests the need to more aggressively pivot toward larger future threats, such as countering Iranian and Russian influence in the region.
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Woodrow Wilson School, 1929-2019

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