Watching the events cascading in Syria makes it eerily easy to see how the political elites of 1914 stumbled into World War I while believing they were pursuing a sensible set of national interests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and US President Barack Obama. In the background, German Red Cross paramedics and a burned Sanitaetswagen, or ambulance, on a World War I battlefield, between 1914 and 1918.
Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by DRK/ullstein bild via Getty Images and Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
The parallels are far from precise. The alliances bonding the players in today’s Middle East aren’t as interlocking as those in early 20th-century Europe. The war-mobilizing machinery isn’t as rigid. And, of course, today’s leaders have the precautionary example of World War I to rivet their attention: They know the pitfalls of escalation and the tragic consequences of unbounded warfare—though people don’t always heed the lessons of the past.
Like the Europe of 101 years ago, the Middle East today is a tinderbox, with plenty of kindling supplied by the combination of weak regimes, millenarian militias, and freelance rebels of various persuasion, each faction backed (or directly armed and aided) by larger powers, some engaged in proxy wars, others drawn in for converging motives while trying to resist the centripetal pull of deeper involvement (with diminishing success). It doesn’t require a wild imagination to envision the lighting of a match—some contemporary counterpart to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
Consider the array of elements:
President Obama stepped up airstrikes against ISIS one year ago, with the intent of focusing the effort in Iraq (which had a quasi-allied government and a familiar array of military commanders) while putting Syria (which had neither) on the back burner. When this plan proved infeasible (because ISIS was rooted in Syria), he started training and equipping some “moderate” rebels, if just so he could tell the region’s Sunni leaders that he was doing something about Syria. This approach backfired when these U.S.-trained rebels were pummeled on the battlefield, and it may have backfired further this week, when Russian cruise missiles destroyed a weapons depot of a CIA-funded rebel force in southern Syria. All of this puts Obama in a spot. Does he back away or go into wait-and-see mode to avoid the escalating the conflict, or does he rise to the challenge by pouring more resources into a mission that he’s never seen as particularly vital? The first choice risks alienating allies, who clamor for more tangible commitment from America (while, in some cases, shirking from seeing their own boys bloodied); the second risks inciting a war with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent planes, tanks, and possibly “volunteer” troops, in recent weeks, to help shore up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his only politico-military ally outside the former Soviet Union. In recent days, he has gone further and launched cruise missiles—26 of them just on Wednesday—from ships 1,000 miles away, in the Caspian Sea, reportedly hitting not only a few ISIS targets but also some of the “moderate” rebel groups that the United States and other countries in the region have been supporting.
But Putin, who is often portrayed as a strategic wizard (by some American columnists and legislators, no less avidly than by his own PR teams), may be digging himself in a hole as well. On a merely technical level, the Russian military hasn’t conducted prolonged air-to-ground operations for many years, and there’s some evidence it doesn’t know how. CNN reported Thursday (and a senior administration official confirmed to me) that four Russian cruise missiles crashed in Iranian territory on their way to Syria. It is unknown as yet how many of the other 22 actually hit their targets inside Syria and how many veered a quarter-mile or so off course. (Some of their missiles have primitive guidance systems compared with the most advanced satellite-guided U.S. models.) Will some Russian missile, perhaps one launched tomorrow, crash into an American base in Iraq? Then what?
Then, as often happens with Putin’s Russia, there are the sheer puzzlers. This week, two Russian planes crossed into Turkish airspace—deliberately, according to U.S. defense officials. One of the planes engaged in “provocative” behavior with Turkish planes that were scrambled in the air. At least two other Russian planes have nearly collided with U.S. surveillance drones—one perhaps accidentally, the other with a clear intent to shadow the drone. What if this happens again and the Turks shoot down the Russian plane or the Russians shoot down a Turkish plane? Turkey is a NATO ally; it could invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and demand help from its allied nations. The possibilities of mistakes and miscalculations—or bizarrely intentional affronts—seem limitless.
On Oct. 1, Pentagon officials gave their Russian counterparts a “memorandum of understanding,” laying out the frequencies of U.S. pilots’ radio communications and other basic information to minimize the chances of one side interfering with the other’s operations. This is standard procedure whenever two or more countries—friend, foe, or otherwise—fly in the same airspace. But so far, the Russians haven’t responded.
By Fred Kaplan