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Analysis

A new 30 Years War in the making

Russia, Syria and religious conflict

by Brian Reading in London

Thu 22 Dec 2016

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The assassination of Andrei Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, was a low point in a tragic week for Europe. Quite aside from the individual human consequences, Karlov’s death places greater strain on tense Russo-Turkish relations. Moscow and Ankara, uneasy partners at the best of times, had been in talks about reaching an agreement over the Syrian conflict. The opportunity for resolution seems in doubt. Circumstances in Syria and the region are strikingly similar to another bloody conflict that has haunted European memories over four centuries. Between 1618-48 the 30 Years War ravaged northern Europe. These days may be upon us again.

This began as a religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant states, but evolved into a clash between the continent’s great powers. Emperor Ferdinand ll tried to impose Catholicism throughout his Holy Roman Empire, where formerly Protestantism had been allowed in parts. Bohemia (now a region of the Czech Republic) rebelled against Catholic Austria, then under the dominion of the House of Habsburg. Catholic France, ruled by the House of Bourbon, felt threatened by Catholic Spain and the Habsburg Empire. The Bourbons wanted France to be the dominant power, and intervened to protect the Protestant Dutch Republic from Spain. Militarily powerful Sweden joined the war on the Protestant side for dynastic reasons.

Mercenaries, largely rewarded and fed by plunder, did much of the fighting. Massacres followed whenever a village or town changed hands. Battles were mostly waged in northern Europe, especially in what is now Germany. It became a proxy war for the rival French, Spanish and Habsburg dynasties, waxing and waning without any side gaining a significant advantage. The conflict ended when the combatants were exhausted and impoverished. Around 8m lives were lost due to war and disease. Up to two-thirds of the population died in some northern European regions. The magnitude of the slaughter can be compared with the 14th century plague pandemic and the 20th century world wars.

The Sunni v. Shia Islamic conflict in the Middle East should not last 30 years but is far from over, despite the fall of Aleppo to government forces. The Syrian civil war began during the 2011 Arab Spring, when majority Sunni protesters took to the streets to demand democracy from President Bashar al-Assad’s Shia-Alawite autocracy. Violent government repression led to armed resistance and demands to oust Assad. Iraq, now a failed state, was also in turmoil following the second Gulf war, due to the power vacuum left after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Lebanon, Libya and Egypt were similarly drawn into regional conflict. The rebels were split in many ways, principally between jihadists (mostly Isis), the Free Syrian Army and Kurds.

The support that America, its European allies, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have extended so far is problematic. Unseating Assad is the common denominator. At the same time, defeating Isis matters a great deal to the US, and Turkey wants to crush the Kurds. On the other side, Assad is supported by Russia, which is committed to protecting its access to Syria’s warm-water Mediterranean port, and Iran. The fragile Russian-Turkish deal for a ceasefire in Aleppo and safe passage of civilians and rebels was a snub to the US – Washington was neither involved nor informed.

Until Russia gave Assad total military support, he was losing. Now he is winning. The supply of US arms to the rebels has been terminated since those weapons started falling into Isis’ hands. The disparate rebel groups fight each other, jihadists against the Free Syrian Army. America cannot give total support to all rebels and so gives none. Since it has failed to intervene decisively or negotiate a settlement, US influence in the region has been eclipsed. Like France and Sweden in the 30 Years War, Russia has become the dominant power in the region. We must fear a further widening of the parallels in the new year.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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