A Thirty Years' War in the Middle East

Hopefully the "Arab Spring" conflicts won't last as long.

History teaches through the use of analogies. Inexact though these analogies may be, they represent one of the best ways to draw upon the past to inform, though certainly not dictate, the future.

In the wake of the end of the Iraq War and the vagaries of the Arab Spring-cum-Winter, the Middle East is ripe for an analogy to describe its present turmoil. One could do far worse than the hellish Thirty Years’ War that convulsed Europe between 1618 and 1648 and ended by bequeathing to the world the modern state system. Whether the present bloodletting in Syria, the ongoing geopolitical contest of wills between Sunni and Shia Muslim powers, and renewed Great Power rivalry yields anything approximating such a dramatic and long-standing order is questionable in the extreme. Yet it would benefit analysts to consider the similarities between that previous epoch shaping event and today’s ongoing drama.

The Thirty Years’ War was a massive and complex conflict that began with the notorious “Defenestration of Prague” on May 23, 1618. It was a multi-faceted affair that requires multiple lenses to look through in order to begin to understand it. It began as a religious conflict between Protestant princes in Germany fighting to preserve their autonomy and their faith against the Catholic Habsburg Empire to their south. Yet it would metastasize into a great-power conflict among several Catholic dynasties—the French, guided by the famed practitioner of realpolitik, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Habsburgs of both Austria and Spain. Richelieu, in a typically calculating move, allied with Protestant Sweden against France’s Habsburg coreligionists. Meanwhile, Spain, and its own Machiavellian political operative, the Duke of Olivares, worked to recapture rebellious Holland. Against this backdrop of sectarian and geopolitical conflict, individual personalities and power seekers (like the ambitious, if tragic, Albrecht von Wallenstein) came to the fore, along with a steady stream of petty German princes seeking to secure independence and new territory for their own dynasties.

The Thirty Years’ War was a particularly brutal conflict that was the world war of its century. Amazingly, given the disasters to follow in the twentieth century, a larger share of the pre-Reich German population died. Some estimate that as much as 40 percent of the German population died as a result of battle, deprivation, disease and famine. Of course, as alluded to above, the violence also led to a series of agreements that became part of the larger Peace of Westphalia and the formation of what is now known as the “Westphalian” state system. Today, international relations scholars take this system largely for granted.

The analogy is relevant today because it helps to illustrate, no doubt inexactly, the manner in which current Middle East is enmeshed in its own complex web of conflicts that are geopolitical as well as sectarian. Today the roles played by France and Sweden are played by the United States and Russia, along with an assortment of European states.

Even the beginnings of these two conflicts share certain symmetries. Today’s Middle East was set aflame through an act of desperate self-immolation by a food vendor in Tunisia. The European Thirty Years’ War began when Protestants rallied against the closing of their chapels by the Catholic emperor and threw three of his representatives out of a window (and probably onto a dung heap) in the infamous “Defenestration of Prague.” In both cases, long-standing frustrations and fears sparked a tinderbox long ready to explode.

The 2003 American invasion of Iraq reinvigorated the long-dormant Sunni-Shia conflict. The elimination of the Sunni minority Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein set the stage for the rise of the majority Shia population in Iraq. Not surprisingly, the rise of the Shia within Iraq also led to a new opportunity for Iran to move towards shifting the Middle East’s balance of power in a direction more favorable to it. The timing was propitious as it worked on a nuclear program thought by many to be a covert weapons program. And without a Sunni power on its border powerful enough to check Iran, the Saudis and other Sunni powers now had to prepare for a renewed conflict.

At the same time, the rise of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamists and the subsequent development of a “Turkish” model for Middle Eastern development were felt in regional diplomacy, creating new potential constellations of power. Of course, the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained a sore spot for Arab nations as did conflict with Iran’s Syrian-backed cat’s-paw Hezbollah that was well ensconced in Lebanon.

The pieces then were set for the Tunisian self-immolation that would lead to a regional conflagration:

* the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the proliferation of weapons across North and West Africa;

* the quasi-coup in strategically vital Egypt that led to the end of the pharaonic Mubarak regime, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and yet another military intervention overthrowing their President Morsi;

* the civil war in Syria where chemical weapons have once again brought back reminders of Saddam Hussein and his Anfal campaign against the Kurds.

In the long run, the situations in Egypt and Syria are likely to be decisive for the future of the Middle East as were the many battles in the then-disunited German principalities of the seventeenth century.