Syrian intervention invokes Europe’s history

September 5, 2013

The prospect of Congressional approval for a U.S. attack on Syria is probably good news for the world economy and financial markets, since the impact on the oil price of an intense but strictly time-limited military action is likely to be a classic case of “buy on the rumor and sell on the news.” History suggests that the moment U.S. bombs start raining down on Syria, oil prices will pull back and stock markets around the world will rise. But what about the bigger picture? How will a U.S. bombing campaign affect the stability of the Middle East and global geopolitics?

To consider these questions it helps to recall that the main principle underlying the United Nations Charter is non-intervention by foreign governments in the affairs of sovereign states. Morally, this principle is hard to justify. It conflicts with the “duty to protect” civilians from barbarous treatment by their own rulers, which Western governments have invoked when crossing international borders in response to massacres in former Yugoslavia, Sudan and Sierra Leone — and should have invoked, with hindsight, to stop Hitler in the 1930s and prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Why, then, is non-intervention still recognized as the bedrock of modern international law? A standard answer is the Peace of Westphalia — a series of treaties in 17th century Europe that legally enshrined national self-determination and inviolability of borders for the first time. But why should the world today still be bound by these 400-year-old ideas?

Maybe because the Peace of Westphalia emerged from what was perhaps the bloodiest war in the history of Europe, a war which unfortunately has terrifying similarities to events now engulfing the Middle East. The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48 was a series of religious and sectarian struggles, mainly between Protestant and Catholic rulers in small German principalities, that sucked in all of the great Continental powers and probably killed more people, proportionately to population, than any European conflict up to World War Two. This war was marked by horrific massacres of civilian populations and by looting, rape, torture and genocide justified by religious doctrine. It wiped out an estimated 25 to 40 percent of the people in what is now Germany, with some German states such as Brandenburg and Wuerttemberg allegedly losing as much as two-thirds of their populations.

Could there be some instructive parallels between the Thirty Years’ War and the religious killing today in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with proxy backing from Saudi Arabia and Iran and less directly from the U.S., Egypt and Israel? The obvious parallel is that Sunnis and Shi’ites have already been fighting for 30 years, starting with the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s — and broader religious warfare has gone on much longer if we include the Israeli conflict. So U.S. bombing Syria is unlikely to make the Middle East either more or less stable; it will merely continue the status quo. But even if the warfare continues, might it become less barbaric?

This seems unlikely. Punishing Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons and at the same time disavowing any attempt at “regime change” might even signal that massacring civilians is acceptable, provided the killing is done with bullets, bombs or beheadings, and not poison gas. In fact, gaining an implicit sanction for “conventional” killing might even have been Assad’s secret objective in provocatively crossing President Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons.

But even if limited bombing fails to prevent future massacres, might it shorten the conflict by drawing the U.S. deeper into Syria, leading to Assad’s overthrow? This, too, is unlikely. A U.S. ground invasion in the Middle East is politically unthinkable after the Iraq experience. But without a U.S. military presence, regime change in Syria would probably bring in a new government as hostile to Western interests and perhaps as murderous as Assad’s. Even a miraculous flowering of democracy might not produce better results. Judging by events in Iraq and Egypt, the Sunni majority in Syria would probably elect a fundamentalist regime, backed by Saudi Arabia and al Qaeda, that would want to massacre Shi’ite and Alawite “apostates” in revenge for the Sunnis massacred by Assad’s Alawites, supported by Shi’ite Iran.

Which brings us back to possible parallels with Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. Why did a war apparently motivated by religious differences — not only between Catholics and Protestants but also between Protestant Lutherans and Calvinists — kill more people in Europe than previous conflicts caused by economic interests and territorial disputes?

Partly because religious fanaticism can inspire hatred, legitimize violence, turn cruelty into self-righteousness and devalue the lives of unbelievers. But probably more important was the way that religion could disguise the true motivations — economic, territorial or dynastic — of outside interests exploiting the anarchy in central Europe for their own gains. What prolonged the religious wars in Europe for so many decades was not just spiritual fanaticism. It was the persistent intervention of external powers — Austria, Spain, France, Sweden, the Papacy, Turkey and Denmark — that found irresistible opportunities to fight proxy wars on German territory, instead of their own land.

These external powers created an unstoppable war machine, by feeding in mercenaries, money and weapons into the collapsing German principalities long after their domestic human and economic resources were exhausted. Without external support, the feeble German princes might have fought themselves to a standstill in years or perhaps even months, rather than decades — and would have found it physically impossible to keep fighting after so many of their citizens had been killed. But as long as the money and mercenaries from Madrid, Paris, Vienna or Rome kept flowing, the killing just went on and on.

It was only after all the great powers of Europe had gone bankrupt, that the fighting in Germany gradually subsided and the Peace of Westphalia was agreed. Meanwhile, England, the one major nation that stayed out of the conflict, emerged as the world’s dominant economy and superpower.

It is better to learn from history than to repeat it.

PHOTO: Smoke rises as seen from the Aleppo district of Salaheddine September 4, 2013. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah


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Greg Lawson made the Thirty Years’ War analogy in an article for the Atlantic Sentinel two months ago which might be of interest to you: le-east-embroiled-in-its-own-thirty-year s-war/

Posted by Nick_Ottens | Report as abusive

Fine article, and to the point. “…if the warfare continues, might it become less barbaric?” Rather like trying to pick up a turd by the clean end.

Like it or not, war is the primary means, along with it’s allies, sickness and starvation, that “reduces the herd” of excess humans on this planet throughout history. It seems to be what humans do instead rushing over the cliff periodically as lemmings are believed to do.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Syria will be another Afghanistan, Iraq or any african country which will suffer from Civil War. American intervention is not required. It will kill thousands of innocent civilians. Patel Sonali Ganesh Chaturthi

Posted by patelsonali121 | Report as abusive

The Peace of Westphalia is nothing more than a part of the European mythology.
It is really a beloved theme. Last time the topic was broadly discussed a year ago, when Henry Kissinger brought it up in “Washington Post.”
In fact, the number of wars and deaths in Europe before the Reformation and after the Westphalia Peace didn’t change.
Any organized religion is the evil. Unlike faith. We can discuss how Westphalia affected the institutions. But it is a completely different subject.
In our never-ending Middle East discussions the Treaty of Westfalia will not give any insights.
How can it explain that the Assad’s army is actually based on the Sunni Arabs? Like in Europe: sectarian divisions are used to cover the interests that are far from a divine…whatever or whoever.
With the history of the last Balkan war (same population as in Syria; 150,000 deaths) we would better find new arguments.
Because there is not much to be proud of.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

The Syrian crisis is getting worse and worse by the day. With the EU standing by the US, the region is likely to see a bitter conflict, especially the Arab world is going to have to brace for tough days ahead….Russia and China are another entrants in the new developments, which could intensify the crisis even more. 8/russia-and-china-warn-against-military -intervention-in-syria/

Posted by VickyLeaks | Report as abusive

If it’s an open American policy to take over countries in the Middle East so they can control their vast oil and gas resources and to teach them and their children how to have gay sex, then why do we have to sit through endless media representations that your moving forward with a program of world domination for freedom and democracy or because you want to identify them as the bad people or as subhumans. If this is just our policy , you can tear down the churches in this country because you don’t need them..

So what was this unfolding strategy to undermine Syria and Iran all about?
According to retired
NATO Secretary General Wesley Clark, a memo from the Office of the US
Secretary of Defense just a few weeks after 9/11 revealed plans to “attack and destroy the governments in 7 countries in five years”, starting with Iraq and moving on to “Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.” In a subsequent interview, Clark argues that this strategy is fundamentally about control of the region’s vast oil and gas resources.

Much of the strategy currently at play was candidly described in a 2008 US
Army-funded RAND report, Unfolding the Future of the Long War
(pdf). The report noted that “the economies of the industrialized states will
continue to rely heavily on oil, thus making it a strategically important resource.” As most oil will be produced in the Middle East, the US has “motive for maintaining stability in and good relations with
Middle Eastern states”:…

Posted by rghtuner | Report as abusive

The Middle East’s wars of intolerance beget terrorists off shoots like the 911 bombing. Therefore nuclear weapons in hands of some of most intolerant clergy ruling Iran is incompatible with life. Therefore Iran is a must do war. Poison gas of various types can be easily made by labs of terrorists not nuclear weapons. So Syria is of much lesser importance until Iran is taken care of.

It shows a disregard for the military that will do the job to tell the whole world including the enemy that they are coming. War should be preceded with sweet talk and pretended weakness. Our opening strike should secret and of overwhelming force.

There should be a hit list of those whole end is the objective. Nothing is settled by damaging inanimate objects. Are inanimate things men that we should wage war against them. We do not want stay for generations to change cultures, therefore all we can do kill a lot of the bad actors and get out.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

The treaty of Westphalia was not from the 17th century. It was produced in 19th century Vienna, by the frightened monarchs and monarchists who thought the revolutionary ideals of France plus the new Nationalism ( from Napoleon partly) would break up the order of Europe. I think 1815 was the year, but I do know not the 17th century. Such mistakes makes me not trust anything else the guy says.

Posted by TomTele | Report as abusive

The analogy to the 30 years war is excellent. Think that Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity and it seems the Muslims are right on schedule for a Reformation maybe

Posted by TomTele | Report as abusive

“Peace among nations is bad for the weapons trade” – who will profit? The MIC and weapons trade in the US and other countries.

“Limited strikes” will kill many innocent civilians, even as the drone “targeted attacks” have done, creating more hatred toward the US. More Middle eastern and African countries will have more reasons to mistrust and despise us. Attacking Syria will drag us into another “war” and that war may be joined by more countries against us.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

An excellent, thought-provoking article.

Well said, Anatole Kaletsky.

This is the type of article that brings me back to Reuters.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

What an amazingly garbled analysis! It starts with the fantasy of a “strictly time-limited military action”, then goes on to contradict that concept with the near certainty that it will expand. It will not help the world’s economy, but will certainly line the pockets of the Plutocracy who always stand to gain when their is conflict and the United States is more than willing to dump “foreign aid” into the pockets of American arms manufacturers.

This sounds like a wild conspiracy theory, except it’s true. Most of the foreign aid to countries like Egypt and Pakistan has gone into their respective militaries who get billions of dollars of “aid” – American military weapons. Of course, the Members of Congress get their cut, but let’s not call it corruption, but “brokerage”.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Violence begets violence. Military planners in the first 2 world wars planned violence on a scale that observers thought would never be repeated. Naive citizenry always trust their peers like academics their landowning elites. The end result of this cycle of violence is the massacre of brave soldiers in the theatre of war that never brings a single CHANGE for the better in international relationships.
When soldiers are willing to see the matrix of intrigue, double entendre & propaganda into which they are thrown like lambs led to the slaughter, a time will come when the violent solution organised by planners behind closed doors will be seen for what it is.
A cabal. WTFU soldiers!

Posted by golding | Report as abusive

From the historical point of view there is a glaring omission in this article. It does not mention another European power of that time (beside England): Polish-Lithuanian Commenwealth. This Commenwealth despite bordering with Germann princehoods, did not entangle in their affairs, thus avoiding catastrophic sectrian and religious wars and flourish till the beginnig of XVIII century.

Posted by batory | Report as abusive

There hasent been a sectarian war going on for the past 30 years. The Iran/Iraq war was territorial and political (Saddam wanted Irans oilfields, and the US wanted war in Muslim lands).

The author is incorrect. But now there is a sectarian war going on in Syria, and to an extent Iraq.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

America has used it’s diplomacy and military to ensure stability in the Middle East in order to provide for the flow of oil to our thirsty economy.

Now that America is able to produce it’s own oil, or import from Canada (a much closer source), America is using those same tools to create instability in the Middle East.

Notice that the U.S. has not gained any oil from it’s foray into Iraq.

It is China that is contracting for Iraq’s oil. China will continue to expand it’s partnerships in the Middle East to ensure that it’s growing economy has enough oil. China will also have to pay for keeping the Middle East secure and stable. The price of oil will continue to rise as the cost of ensuring stability grows. In addition, as other growing economies come ‘online’, the competition for energy resources will also cause oil prices to rise. As the U.S. becomes a net exporter of energy resources, the impact on the U.S. economy will be profoundly positive.

If anyone thinks that the U.S. will continue to be global policeman in that part of the world, they would be mistaken. If anything, the U.S. will cause continued instability in the M.E. in order to cause China to contribute more of their GDP to securing the area. In other words, why should the U.S. let China benefit from any peace that may have been established over the course of generations, and cost of lives and fortune.

The U.S. shift to the Pacific makes more sense now if you think about it.

Not only can we develop closer ties to allies and others in that region, we can if necessary, make it much harder for the Chinese to import from the Middle East. This is
part of the price China must pay for supporting North Korea and annexing Tibet, amongst other things. By supporting North Korea, China has caused the U.S. to spend a lot of fortune to support it’s allies, South Korea and Japan.

Inflaming the Shiite-Sunni/Persian-Arab conflict creates an ongoing fiasco that …
1. China will have to manage in order to ensure the flow of oil from the M.E. and other imports from their growing relationships in Africa.
2. Russia will have to manage in order to keep the fiasco from spreading within their areas of influence.

Posted by freethepeople | Report as abusive

With our all American can do optimism and a resounding chorus of ‘Onward christian Soldiers,” Americans have flexed their formidable global muscles in the Middle east, confident that our take charge performance would be gladly received wherever we went. Perhaps oil not well that ends well, especially when fuels rush in….

Posted by retroarama | Report as abusive