Two Shots Heard Round The World: Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, was the necessary provocation that allowed the Entente powers to set in motion the General European War that they - and Serbia - had been planning for more than a decade. In Syria, today, there are frighteningly strong parallels with the Great Power intrigues and transformative territorial ambitions that led to the outbreak of war in 1914.
SYRIA HAS BECOME the Serbia of the early Twenty-First Century. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, Serbia was Europe’s tinder-box. All the major powers understood the risk Serbia posed, but each of them had too much at stake in the Balkans to hazard bringing the criminal Belgrade regime to heel. The same can be said of Syria. The major powers all have a great deal to lose by ending the Syrian civil war and restoring peace to the Middle East.
What this means, however, is that the seething rivalries fuelling the Syrian civil war could, at any moment, draw the major powers into a military confrontation – with profound consequences for the whole world. Just as Britain, France and Russia knew that Serbia could very easily be made the pretext for a war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the United States and its key Middle Eastern allies know that Syria could very easily be turned into a shooting war against the Russian Federation and Iran.
The fatal flaw in the great powers’ relationship with Serbia in the early Twentieth Century was that Serbia had geopolitical aspirations that could only be satisfied by a general European War. The Serbian dream was to become the leader of a new South Slav (Yugoslav) kingdom carved out of the Balkan provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That was never going to happen while Austria-Hungary endured. Serbia wanted – Serbia needed – a general European war.
In Syria, the raging fratricidal battles are being driven by two, mutually exclusive, geopolitical and religious visions of the region’s future.
For Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s beleaguered President, the best outcome of the civil war would be the creation of a Shia Islam alliance extending all the way from Syria’s Mediterranean coast, through Iraq, to Iran’s borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For Syria’s Sunni majority, the ultimate goal is the creation of a Sunni Islam alliance embracing Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
The success of either of these arrangements would fundamentally derange the geopolitics of the Middle East. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the two leading nuclear powers, the USA and the Russian Federation, both have planes in the air and (some) boots on the ground in Syria.
Tipping The Scales: The intrusion of Russian air power in support of President Bashar al-Assad's government has dramatically upset military calculations across the Middle East.
President Vladimir Putin would dearly love to have a friendly Shia confederation stretching protectively along the Russian Federation’s southern flank. That the increasingly erratic regime of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would find itself squeezed between the two (and, quite possibly, a newly created independent Kurdish state) only adds to the attractiveness of this outcome.
For President Barack Obama, the situation is a great deal murkier. Washington’s unshakeable alliance with the State of Israel leaves it in something of a quandary. Jerusalem already lives in existential fear of an assertive (i.e. nuclear-capable) Iran. It’s reaction to an Iran-dominated Shia confederation stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean can only be imagined! But a vertical alliance of Takfiri-driven Sunni states, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea, would, if anything, be worse! How long could it be before nuclear-armed Pakistan applied to join this incipient Caliphate?
Russia’s much clearer set of objectives is reflected in its much clearer foreign and military policies in the Middle East. It’s straightforward goal is to keep Bashar al-Assad in power and destroy the Turks’ and the Saudis’ Takfiri proxies – which include the Al Qaeda aligned al-Nusra Front as well as the murderous Islamic State. [The Takfiris are Muslims who claim the right to brand as apostate, and make war upon, every Muslim who, according to the Takfiris’ radically literal interpretation of the Quran, is guilty of deviating from the “true” path of the Prophet.]
So far, the Russians and their Syrian Government allies are doing pretty well. Thanks largely to Russia’s fighter-bombers, the strategic rebel stronghold of Aleppo is on the point of falling to Assad’s army.
To the Turks and the Saudis, the fall of Aleppo would be a disaster. Not only would the rebels’ crucial supply lines to Turkey be severed, but the road to the Islamic State’s Syrian “capital”, Raqqa, would lie open. But, as Ankara and Riyadh both know, the moment the “moderate” rebels and the Islamic State are defeated, the Syrian civil war is over. And if that happens, there will be nothing to prevent the extension of Iranian power all the way to the Syrian coast.
Hence the Saudi-Arabian Crown Prince’s excited talk about sending tens-of-thousands of ground troops to Syria via Turkey, ostensibly to destroy Islamic State, but actually to establish a “buffer zone” along Turkey’s southern border with Syria. Russia has warned that any such breach of international law will be answered with military force.
On Sunday, Turkish artillery began shelling Kurdish positions across the Syrian border.
The parallels with Serbia in 1914 are frightening.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 February 2016.