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?