One of the conundrums of the prolonged Syrian conflict is whether arming and supplying the ‘rebel’ groups trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s diabolical regime is a risk worth taking. Is it a necessary step to finally end one of the Middle East’s most repressive dictatorships? Or is it a misguided gamble that will see Al-Qaeda affiliates armed to the teeth, ready to deploy their weaponry against Western targets?
A comparable, if not totally identical, dilemma was faced by the Allied forces seventy-three years ago today. At the height of the Blitz, with France long since having fallen to the Wehrmacht’s ‘Blitzkrieg’, the British government feared an imminent invasion, both of its mainland and its overseas territories.
The Chief of the Naval Staff, writing on the 21st November 1940, declared the importance of supplying wheat to the starving Spanish regime of the fascist Francisco Franco in order to prevent Spain ‘being forced into the arms of Germany’.
British naval personnel were particularly concerned that Spain could support a German attack against their crucial naval base in Gibraltar, thus gaining control of all the Mediterranean. The dilemma faced by the British was obvious. Did they supply the Spaniards with an important commodity, knowing that Franco could easily accept the gift and still offer support to his ideological brethren in Berlin?
What made the issue more complex is that the wheat ship was due to be sent from America. The Americans, however, wanted a declaration of support for the Allied effort from Franco in return for the wheat. The British were unequivocal in their stance:
General Franco would not make such a statement and that if he did he would bring the Germans immediately in on his back…I feel that the American side of the problem has been very badly handled by the United States ambassador here.
America had yet to enter the war and the British clearly felt they had far more to lose if the procrastination regarding the Spanish wheat ship continued. For the British, the risk was worth taking:
Even if our friends and we fail to keep Spain out of the Axis we can at once reverse our policy and hold up supplies.
Ultimately, the American grain ships sailed and Spain’s wheat supplies were assured. Franco, knowing his war-ravaged country could ill afford to lose this precious resource, refused Hitler’s entreaties to aid a German and Vichy French attack against Gibraltar. Gibraltar, meanwhile, remained a vital British naval base throughout WWII and supported the convoys that supplied Britain’s allies.
Of course reversing the policy of arms supplies to the Syrian rebels is not practicable and therefore it is a bigger gamble than the Spanish wheat ‘dilemma’ turned out to be. Perhaps, in the long run, it is a gamble worth taking. It depends on who is defined as the greater evil; Assad? Or the terrorist minority amongst the rebels?
PRO Source: CAB 80/23