On Feb. 7-8, a pitched battle erupted along the Euphrates River in Syria. When it was over, dozens of Russian mercenaries were dead along with an estimated 100 Iranian backed Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Victory, in this case, belonged to ethnic Kurdish militiamen fighting alongside U.S. Marines and American Special Forces supported by U.S. airstrikes.
Despite the size of this engagement, Russian President Putin has downplayed it, and a normally garrulous President Trump has been uncharacteristically silent. It is almost as if “nothing” happened.
There was another eerily similar “nothing” event a hundred years ago in the Balkan Peninsula of Southeastern Europe. On June 28, 1914, The Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a Black Hand anarchist from Serbia. As he lay dying, the Archduke told his wife, Sophie, six times: “It is nothing.”
This assassination launched a swirling vortex that sucked in first local, then regional, and, finally, international actors into a whirlpool of slaughter. Locally, independent Serbia nursed a grievance over the recent Austrian annexation of their fellow Slavs in Bosnia. Ominously, the Russians saw themselves as the protectors of their fellow Slavs in all the Balkans, while the Germans were guarantors of Teutonic Austria.
This whirlpool, nevertheless, had a few potential defections to peace. On July 23, Austria presented Serbia with a list of 21 Demands as punishment for the Serbian nationality of the assassin. The Serbs met most of them, but agreed to negotiate the rest.
With assurances of German support, Austria rejected the olive branch, and declared war on Serbia on July 28. To keep international forces from becoming sucked into the whirlpool, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany proposed to his cousin, Czar Nicholas of Russia, that Germany would remain aloof from this fray, if Russia would refrain from mobilizing its Army, or at least not fully mobilize it.
Nicholas telegraphed his compliance, and ordered a partial mobilization. However, his generals informed him that the Russian military couldn’t do partial mobilizations. This chance for peace thus withered, and the Czar ordered a full mobilization on July 30.
The rest, so to say, is history: Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1 and on France on Aug. 3, and then promptly invaded Belgium. This provoked England to declare war on Germany on Aug. 4. The “nothing” of Sarajevo detonated a conflagration in the Balkans that engulfed the entire world into The Great War of 1914-18 with its 10 million deaths.
War scholars have made a fetish of studying the origins of this First World War because of the comparable dangers of these complexities being duplicated elsewhere.
In their search for lessons, the consensus is that had the Russians been able to order a partial mobilization, the international link might have been broken, keeping the conflict thereby localized. The lesson here is that in international crises caught up in whirlpools, flexibility by both generals and diplomats is a paramount necessity.
So today in Syria, can these clashes on the Euphrates and the responses of silence, create a breathing spell similar to the might-have-been partial mobilization of Russia? The timing is key: in both cases, the mobilization in the Balkans and the silence in Syria occurred just when the whirlpool of local forces was pulling the international actors into a general war.
Tracing the complexities of the Syrian whirlpool make steady hands shake. The beleaguered Assad regime in Syria is drawn from a Shiite minority group in a country that is 85 percent Sunni. But Assad has the strong support of the fellow Shiite regime in Iran that has deployed Shiite Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Also, since 2015, Assad has received critical military help from Russia. Representing the dominant Sunni interests in the Muslim world against the Shiites is Turkey, with the largest military in the region, and that is also a NATO ally of the United States. Both the United States and Turkey, contra Russia, share the goal of removing the murderous Assad regime.
All parties shared a common interest in defeating ISIS, but with that accomplished in January, dangerous cross-purposes have roiled up. A big complication is the ethnic Kurds, whose 30 million people live, stateless, in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. defends them, while the Turks are attacking them, which is raising the scepter of a direct clash between NATO allies. Meanwhile, the Israelis have launched air strikes that decimated half of Syria’s air defenses in response to Iranian drone strikes from Syrian soil.
Put simply: if cooler heads cannot prevail, these Balkan ghosts in Syria are pushing the world over the brink to a devastation far greater than the Great War of a century ago.