Martin van Creveld predicts a horrific long war in Syria

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.

"The Disasters of War" by Francisco Goya.
“The Disasters of War” by Francisco Goya.

A Thirty Years’ War?

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.

Wallenstein: A Scene of the Thirty Years War
“Wallenstein: A Scene of the Thirty Years War” by Ernest Croft (1884).

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.

Nations in Thirty Years War
From The Thirty Years’ War by Geoffrey Parker (1997).

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.

———————-———————-

For More Information

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  1. Another rush to war! This time in Syria.
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  3. Ignore the propaganda about Syria. See the world through clear eyes.

Books about modern war by Martin van Creveld

The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq.

The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz.

The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq
Available at Amazon.
Transformation of War
Available at Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld predicts a horrific long war in Syria

  1. I rarely say this but I think van Creveld is thinking too small. The events across the Arab world (and to a smaller extent, the Muslim world) since the Arab Spring seem to me to be part of a linked pattern similar to the 30 years war and I cannot foresee an end to hostilities in less than 20 years. Populations in the Middle East are growing, resources in desert countries are finite, their governments are uniformly aimed at preserving control by a minority population (Iran and Turkey being the closest things to good government), which adds considerable pressure to the conflict.

    The central question is what role does being a Muslim (especially an Arab one) play in the public discourse and people’s lives. Do Muslims have the same rights as members of other faiths? If not, why? So far the answers have been bloody repression both by members of the faith (in Iran for example) and secular governments (in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood). How Europe responds to its influx of Muslims will have a major impact on the next stage of the conflict.

  2. I don’t think this is being ignored, rather it is policy.
    Gen. Clark laid out the agenda around the time of the Kosovo engagement. The policy is to replace all Islamic governments in the arc from Iran to Morocco.
    The ‘Arab Spring’ was one manifestation of this policy, the Syria war is another. Why and to what aim this policy was embarked on is not known, but it seems deeply against both Europe’s as well as Israel’s interests. The former gets flooded with refugees, the latter gets surrounded by death and destruction on an ever larger scale.

  3. Incisive…until the last line, where Creveld lets self-pity get the better of him. Because, if he was being as self-critical as he is of the wars around him he’d be willing to accept that Israel IS part of the problem going all the way back to its reliance on colonial mandates for foundation through its role in legitimizing political Islam. And that, like Iran, Israel could be part of the solution instead of, as he does note, letting its right-wing indulge fantasies of Greater Israel. It’s not that the Arab world WON’T illogically blame Israel for its own troubles; it’s that Israel is kidding itself if it thinks that it can hunker down behind the IDF and do nothing to try and ameliorate those troubles.

    That said…this IS incisive, and I wish I thought that the Western leaders’ people were thoughtful enough to see the dangers here. Chaos in 17th Century Europe was one thing; chaos in the 21st Century Middle East – with air travel and digital communications – offers a terrific chance for that chaos to spread. And given the difficulty of colonialism in an era of cheap and widespread automatic weapons and DIY mines and boobytraps I don’t think there’s a military solution…which appears to be the only “solution” the Western powers can think of.

    I can’t think of a way this doesn’t end badly.

    1. I would say this in about the Israelis. Though they’ve bombed the Syrian government, they’ve given some assistance to Syrian rebels near their border, overall Israel’s effect on the map, that is how the war is playing out is pretty much near zero. They haven’t turned battles in their favor, they haven’t really killed that many people. It’s Turkey that’s proven able to get things done and mainly that’s due to simple math. In this war population matters, and Turkey has the population. Israel is innocent, not for lack of desire to do something but more simply for being unable.

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