Summary: In 2015 Martin van Creveld gave this typically brilliant briefing on the war in Syria, saying that it would work out like the Thirty Years War , one of the most destructive wars in Europe’s long and violent history. Three years later it looks even more prescient. We ignored his warnings about Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s not do so a third time.
By Martin van Creveld.
From his website, 22 October 2015.
Posted with his generous permission.
For those of you who have forgotten, here is a short reminder. The Thirty Years’ War started in May 1618 when the Protestant Estates of Bohemia revolted against the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. They threw his envoys out of the windows of the palace at Prague. Fortunately for them, the moat into which they fell was filled with rubbish and nobody was killed.
Had the revolt remained local, it would have been suppressed fairly quickly. As, in fact, it was in 1620 when the Habsburgs and their allies won the Battle of the White Mountain. Instead it expanded and expanded. First the Hungarians and then the Ottomans were drawn in (though they did not stay in for long). Then came the Spaniards, then the Danes, then the Swedes, and finally the French. Some did less, others more. Many petty European states, cities, and more or less independent robber barons also set up militias and joined what developed into a wild free for all.
For three decades armies and militias chased each other all over central Europe. Robbing, burning, raping, killing. By the time the Treaty of Westphalia ended the hostilities in 1648 the population of Germany had been reduced by an estimated one third.
The similarities with the current war in Syria are obvious and chilling. This war, too, started with a revolt against an oppressive ruler and his regime. One who, however nasty he might be, at any rate had kept things more or less under control.
At first it was a question of various “liberal” Syrian factions — supposing such things exist — trying to overthrow Bashir Assad. Next it turned out that some of those factions were not liberal but Islamic, part of a much larger movement originating in Iraq and known, for short, as IS or Daesh. Next Hezbollah, which in some ways acts as an extension of Assad, and Iran, which had long supported Hezbollah against Israel, were drawn in. The former sent in fighters, the latter advisers and arms.
Even that was only the beginning. Smelling blood, the Kurds, whose territory straddles both Syria and Iraq, tried to use the opportunity to gain their independence. This necessarily drew in the Turks. To prevent its native Kurds from joining their brethren. Ankara started bombing them. To satisfy Obama, it also dropped a few bombs on IS. The US on its part started training some of the “liberal” militias, to no avail. US instructors did no better in Syria than their predecessors had done in Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq; what is surprising is that they, and their bosses in the White House, never learn.
Next the US itself entered the fray. Fearing casualties, though, it only did so to the extent of launching drone-strikes, which are more or less useless. The Russians, determined to avoid the loss of their only remaining base outside their own country and to keep Assad in place, launched airstrikes on some, but not all, the militias. The French, hoping to achieve God knows what, did the same. Fueling the conflict are the Saudis who will oppose anything the Iranians support. Too cowardly to send in their own useless army, they are trying to get rid of Assad by heavily subsidizing his enemies.
With so many interests, native and foreign, involved, a way out does not seem in sight. Nor can the outcome be foreseen any more than that of the Thirty Years’ War could be four years after the beginning of the conflict, i.e. 1622. In fact there is good reason to believe that the hostilities have just begun. Additional players such as Lebanon and Jordan may well be drawn in. That in turn will almost certainly bring in Israel as well. Some right-wing Israelis, including several ministers, actually dream of such a scenario. They hope that the fall of the Hashemite Dynasty and the disintegration of Jordan will provide them with an opportunity to repeat the events of 1948 by throwing the Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan.
That, however, is Zukunftmusik, future music as the Germans say. As of the present, the greatest losers are going to be Syria and Iraq. Neither really exists any longer as organized entities, and neither seems to have a future as such an entity. The greatest winner is going to be Iran. Playing the role once reserved for Richelieu, the great 17th century French statesman, the Mullahs are watching the entire vast area from the Persian Gulf to Latakia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests they can play with. Nor are they at all sorry to see Turks and Kurds kill each other to their hearts’ contents.
Finally, as happened in 1618-48, the main victim is the civilian population. Just as in 1618-48, people are being robbed, despoiled, and killed. Just as in 1618-48 the slave trade, especially in nubile females who can be raped and young boys who can be conscripted, is undergoing a revival. Not only in Syria, but in Iraq, where IS is fighting both the local Kurds and whatever ragtag units the Iraqi “Army” can field.
Ere it is over the number of refugees desperately seeking to escape will rise into the millions. Many, not having anything to lose, are going to risk life and limb trying to reach Europe. Joining others from Libya and the rest of Africa, at least some will link with the Salafists, an extreme Muslim sect that is already very active in the continent’s cities. Of those who do, some will turn to terrorism. Terrorism, unless it can be contained, will increasingly be answered not just by extremism, the loss of civil rights and the breakdown of democracy — that is beginning to happen already — but by terrorism.
And whom will everyone blame? Israel, of course. But that is something we Israelis, and Jews, are used to.
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