Is Syria the Kind Of Place where World Wars Start?

Burning the Midnight Oil for the Arc of the Sun

See also previously in the examination of the Sunset Empire Shuddering and Shaking

Now, you might think that we don't have enough observations to talk about "where World Wars start" in general. Still, this is something that keeps coming to my mind as I look at the Syrian Civil War, so as long as its kept in mind that this is suggestive rather than definitive, I'm going to have a look at it.

By the early 1900's, the Balance of Power politics of the 1800's had settled down into a polarized system of treaties. Germany's geopolitical strategy of isolating France had failed with the establishment of the Russian / French alliance, which in turn pushed Germany and Austria-Hungary closer together. Then the perceived threat posed to England by the alliance of the German and Austria-Hungarian Empires paved the way to the Entente Cordial with France in 1904 and then the Entente with Russia in 1907. That polarized network of treaty relationships was, of course, the bomb that exploded as WWI.

But the spark that famously set off WWI was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austria-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo.

Sarajevo had been originally established by the Ottomans when they took control in the Balkans, and had passed into the Austria-Hungarian Empire in 1878 as part of the Treaty of Berlin ~ the same treaty that set the stage for the European colonial division of Africa. The influence of the Ottoman Empire outside its borders had declined following over a century of rapid decline, and in 1912 it had fought and lost a war against the Balkan League, four nations newly nations of Ottoman rule: Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia. All of the Great Powers of Europe had been officially against the attack of the Balkan League nations on the Ottoman Empire, to acquire various Ottoman territories that the four nations considered part of their ethnic territory, but a number of them collaborated with the formation of the Balkan league and none took decisive action against it.

It was, however, the second Balkan War (Wikipedia machine) that set the fuse for WWI. From an Ottoman perspective, this would have been a falling out among thieves after a successful robbery. Bulgaria was unsatisfied with its share of the settlement of the First Balkan War, and attacked Serbia and Greece to take the territory that Bulgaria though of as Bulgarian lands. Romania sided with Greece and Serbia, and then Russia sided with Serbia, and in the end Bulgaria ended up losing its original gains from the First Balkan War. Of greater concern, the collapse of the Balkan League undermined Russia's position in the Balkans, and pushed Russia into a closer relationship with Serbia.

The assassins had been trained and sent to Sarajevo by radical nationalists in Serbia as part of their political intrigue against the Prime Minister, who saber rattled in public but pushed for peace to give Serbia a chance to recuperate from the losses in both blood and treasure from its fight for Independence and more recently participation in the two Balkan Wars. Following the assassination on 28 June 1914, Austria-Hungary investigates, decides that Serbia was behind it, and on 23 July issues an ultimatum to Serbia with 48 hours to respond. Serbia agrees to comply with most terms, but demurs on some, and as the Great Powers work on trying to settle the crisis, Serbia mobilizes and Russia begins a partial mobilization. Not accepting the response, Austria-Hungary declared war on 28 July and began to mobilize. On 29 July, the German Chancellor attempts to gain a British agreement of neutrality in the event of a German attack on France through Belgium. On 30 July, a Russian general mobilization begin. On 31 July, Germany begins preparations for war and issues an ultimatum to Russia to halt mobilization. On the same day, Britain asks France and Germany for agreement to respect the neutrality of Belgium, which France agrees to and Germany does not.

On August 1, France and Germany both begin full mobilization and with Russia not complying with the German ultimatum, Germany declares war on Russia. On 3 August, Germany and the Ottoman Empire sign a treaty that entrenches the German-Ottoman Alliance. On 3 August, the Germans issue an ultimatum to France to remain neutral, and after the French Prime Minister declares that France would act in accordance with her interests, declares war on France. Britain declares its support for France in the event of a German naval attack on the French north coast (which was beyond the terms of the Cordial Entente). Having failed to receive a German declaration of respect for Belgian neutrality ... a declaration Germany was not about to make as it was already preparing to attack France through Belgium ... on midnight of 4 August, Britain declared war on Germany.

The image here of a powder keg exploding is, of course, both compelling and also substantially false. The declaration of War of Austria-Hungary against Serbia could well have ended with a Third Balkan War involving the Balkan Countries, Russia and Austria-Hungary. If Germany had wanted peace, it could have issued an ultimatum that Russia respect Austria-Hungarian territory, which Russia may or may not have been willing to comply with, as a Third Balkan War would have been a war of aggression against Serbia by Austria-Hungary, and holding the Austrian forces off and forcing them to settle the war without territorial concessions by Serbia would have "restored Russian honor" after they were unable to provide substantial assistance to their Serbian allies in the first two Balkan Wars.

And of course, the expansion of the war from the East to the West was entirely due to Germany taking advantage of the crisis to press for concessions from France. And with that came German adherence to the Schlieffen Plan (Wikipedia Machine), which envisioned Germany winning a Two-Front war with Russia and France by mobilizing rapidly, striking France through the Low Countries, knocking France out of the war, and then concentrating their forces on Russia. That plan was based on the much longer time Russia would take to mobilize for war than France, but it also based on a failure to understand how the changes in military technology since the Napoleonic era would grant an advantage to a defense that was entrenching along a relatively narrow front, protected by barbed wire, machine gun nests, and heavy artillery well behind the front lines. The commitment to the Schlieffen Plan implied an inability to comply with Britain's demand to respect the neutrality of Belgium.

One Beginning Of World War II

Expanding our range of observations is that World War II started twice, as WWII involved two greater than continental-war impact wars merging together. It first began in 1937 in China as the [ Second Sino-Japanese War] with the Japanese invasion of China, followed in 1938 expanding the war to the Soviet Union, and then began in Eastern Europe in 1939 with the German (along with client state Slovakia) invasion of Poland.

The history of China is marked by a series of Dynasties, with interregnums between the dynasties marked by the rise of regional warlords and general turmoil as a number of powerful people attempt to forge a new Dynasty. And, of course, the official histories of a Dynasty include substantial retrospective polishing, in which the legitimacy of that Dynasty is early on recognized by those who in retrospect backed the winner. Some Dynasties had relatively brief reigns, and some lasted longer, such as the Tang of 618-907CE (aka AD) and the Ming of 1368-1644/1662. When European merchants were first buying their way into the East Asian carrying trade using Spanish silver, it was the Ming Dynasty that was in control of China.

The last Imperial Dynasty was the Qing, established by a ruling house originating in Manchuria as tributaries of the Ming Dynasty, which a Ming Dynasty general turned to for support in a period of turmoil following a a peasant revolt that had sacked Beijing, capturing Beijing for themselves in 1644, and completing their takeover of control by around 1683. The Qing were still nominally in control of China when 1900 rolled around, but the 1800's had seen a series of military conflicts with forces of Europeans trading in China as well as revolt and rebellion against the Dynasty, with palace intrigue between the Emperor and Empress Dowager and Emperor from the 1890's until they both passed away in November, 1908. By that time the Imperial Dynasty only exercised limited control outside of the capital, and an uprising in 1912 saw the establishment of a provisional Republic.

However, the Republican rebels were not able to establish control and what emerged instead was a Chinese Government that was a figurehead for one among many regional warlords. In Guangdong (aka Canton in English), the province neighboring Hong Kong, the Republican movement had retained control as the Kuomintang or Nationalist party, and in 1926, in alliance with the Chinese Communist Party and with support from the Soviet Union, was able to defeat the forces of the nominal Chinese government based in Beijing. After several years of turmoil, including a purge of Communists by the Kuomingtang, the other regional warlords were finally either defeated or co-opted and a unified national government brought into power.

The hold of the national government was still tenuous, contested by a number of warlords retaining private armies devoted to their own power, and with the Chinese Communist Party, by Western powers looking to retain their power and influence in the face of the nationalist government's "anti-imperialist" stance ~ which was both locally popular and useful in maintaining the backing of Stalin ~ and, increasingly Japan, which was looking to establish their own sphere of influence in China as they attempted to take a place as a colonial power along in the recent European mold.

In 1931, Japan seized Manchuria ~ the original home of the Qing Dynasty ~ and began a process of taking control over neighboring Chinese territories, while the Nationalist government based in Nanking was focused on fighting the Chinese Communist Party for control. In 1932 the Japanese invaded Rehe province, west of Manchuria and north of the Great Wall and annexed it to Manchuria. In 1935 the Nationalist Chinese government recognized the "neutrality" of the eastern parts of Hebai and Chehar provinces in the North of China, and the Japanese set up a puppet state. By 1937, the Japanese controlled all of Chinese North and East of Beijing.

In 1937, the rail line connecting Beijing to the rest of Nationalist China passed through a single chokepoint, near the famous Marco Polo Bridge. Abusing the terms of the agreement that ended the Boxer Rebellion which allowed countries with official legations to place "railway guards" to guarantee the free movement of goods on the Beijing - Tianjin railway, the Japanese forced numbered from 7,000 to 15,000 men. The Marco Polo Bridge incident took place after a Japanese soldier failed to report during night maneuvers, some Japanese forces concluded that he had been taken prisoner, and in the resulting confusion there were several exchanges of fire.

A ceasefire was established after the incident, but it was violated by both the Japanese and Chinese side, which the Japanese seized on to move on and capture Beijing, and then launch into full scale war with China, taking Shanghai after a three month battle and then the Nationalist capital of Nanjing, which was followed by the infamous Rape of Nanjing (WIkipedia machine).

The Sino-Japanese War bogged down, but one of the reactions to that war was the imposition of an oil embargo on Japan by the United States, which left the Japanese looking to the oil fields in what is now Indonesia and, considering the need to secure the sea lanes from there through to Japan, the Japanese attacks on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base and the US colony in the Philippines, as well as on British colonies in Singapore and Burma.

The Other Start of WWII

The start of WWII in Europe is likely more familiar to people. Following the loss of the German / Austria-Hungarian alliance in WWI, the Austria-Hungarian Empire was dismantled, a number of new nations established in Eastern Europe more or less upon lines of ethnic nationality, and harsh reparations were imposed upon Germany which it was economically impossible for Germany to repay in foreign currency with so many of Germany's former export markets lying in ruins at the end of WWI.

The conditions resulting from the reparations, quite similar to the conditions self-imposed by many austerity governments in Europe today, were taken advantage of by a number of extremist political groups, but it was the fascist National Socialist party that rose to power in Germany, as the established political parties turned to their leader, Adolf Hitler, in hopes that he could be used as a cat's paw to destroy the growing power of the left wing radical groups and then set aside again when his usefulness was done. There was a terrorist incident, a fire in the Riechstag building, which was used as the pretext to grant extra-constititional powers to Chancellor Hitler, and Hitler took advantage of those powers to establish a dictatorship.

There were through the 30's a series of actions by the fascist governments of Germany and Italy that were more an more provocative, but each in turn were largely successful. In 1935-36, Italy invaded Ethiopia. In 1936-39, Germany and Italy gave material support to the fascist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. In early 1938, Germany occupied Austria. Hitler pressed German claims to territory in the new state of Czechoslovakia primarily occupied by ethnic Germans, the "Sudetenland", which was conceded in an agreement in which Germany agreed to make no further territorial demands. Soon after, Germans pressed the Cezchs to make territorial concessions to Hungary and Poland.

In March 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, breaking it up into a Czech protectorate and a Slovak client state, and in response Britain and France guaranteed Polish independence. In April 1939, Italy invaded Albania, and Britain and France guaranteed the independence of Greece and Romania. Finally in August 1939, Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression treaty with a secret annex that laid out German and Russian spheres of influence in Poland and the Baltic states and later in August, Germany invaded Poland. In line with their guarantee of Polish independence, Britain and France, together with the four independent Dominions of the British Empire, declared war on Germany, though there was little they could do to actually defend Polish independence. Poland and the Baltic States were carved up between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the Western part of WWII had begun.

One More Star of a World War

As I pointed out in The Sunset Empire Shudders and Shakes, we can think of the Napoleonic Wars as the first "World War" in the style of WWI and WWII ... kind of "WW0" ... and when we look at where these three World Wars start, there really are some common features to all three.

For "WW0", the Napoleonic Wars, it started on the boundaries of France, since the start of the wars, when their namesake Napoleon was still an artillery commander, involved the "First Coalition" of Prussia and Austria-Hungary fighting against Revolutionary France, attempting to invade France on multiple fronts in order to re-establish a monarchy.

The primary attacks into France came from two distinct directions: the Low Countries, where the Netherlands had risen in a Revolution both inspired by and supported by Revolutionary France, and from Italy.

In a real sense, there is no distinct break between the fighting in which Revolutionary France was defending itself from invasion by the First Coalition and the fighting in which Napoleonic France is fighting to gain control on an ever expanding range of territory with an ever growing variety of client states and occupied territories, because it was in the process of the defense of Revolutionary France that Napoleon emerged, first as a military commander, and then as the political leader of France.

Therefore, it was in a very real sense the Italian Campaigns that the "Napoleonic Wars" emerged from the efforts of the First Coalition to invade France, since it was in the Italian Campaigns that Napoleon emerged as the famed military hero and "Savior of the Revolution" which was his platform for seizing political control.

Back in 1792, "Italy" was not a country, but rather a region containing a number of states of various kinds. Venice, the Papal States and the Duchy of Savoy were independent states, while areas like Milan, Naples and Sicily were ruled by others, sometimes changing hands in one of the treaties at the end of one of the European wars of the 1700's.

In the course of the Italian Campaigns, the French, first on a plan of battle drafted by Napoleon and eventually under the command of Napoleon, reversed Prussian/Australian advanced into France, first taking the place of Spanish and Austrian control in five Italian states, and then in response to a threat to French control of Northwestern Italy, in a campaign that saw French troops arrive in the outskirts of Vienna and a Peace Treaty that confirmed France's control of its Italian Client States.

Seeking for a Common Factor

If we look for a common factor in these four "Starts of World Wars", the plotlines do not give much common ground. The two starts of World War II are both naked aggression by an aggressive rising power invading a weaker neighbor. WWI offers us the equivalent of a "Mexican Standoff" in which a car driving by backfires and people start firing. In the Napoleonic Wars, the naked aggression was on the side of the established Powers That Be against a threatening source of Revolutionary ideology, and it was in the effort to defend itself from external invasion that France under the leadership of Napoleon recreated itself from Revolutionary State into an aggressive rising power.

However, there is one common element that runs through all four. Where the World Wars start has always been territory that has experience recent turmoil in the foundations of sovereignty. In the Napoleonic Wars, the Italian States that had been transferred to Austrian control and the Netherlands which fallen from being the Seat of a colonial Empire to being a pawn of balance of power politics between Prussia and Britain. In WWI, the Balkans that had recently gained their independence from the Ottomans, then fought the Ottomans for more territory, then fought each other over the distribution of the spoils of victory. In China, which had seen the collapse of a centuries-old Imperial Dynasty, an abortive effort to establish a Republic giving way to rule by regional warlords, and the warlord emerging from the original Nationalist Republican party gaining the upper hand without being able to entirely consolidate control. In Eastern Europe, where the defeat of the Soviet Union by Germany and then the defeat of Germany and Austria by the Western Allies saw the dismemberment of the Austria-Hungarian Empire and establishment of a series of new nation-states based roughly along ethnic nationalist lines, though with a great deal of Great Power Politics behind the drawing of the exact boundary lines.

I would argue that this seems to be a kind of place where World Wars start. It is, fortunately, not possible to be sure of this, because we, fortunately, only have four observations to go on. So its speculative rather than definitive. However, it does make a certain kind of sense that breakdowns in the international balance of power that are only settled by all out war involving most of the great Powers of the day emerge from conflicts in places where the domestic balance of power has been undermined or broken.

Which brings me to the question of the title: is Syria one of those kinds of places?

OK, Well, Is It?

Syria may or may not be the kind of place where World Wars start. However, there is reporting that there is at least one actor in the Middle East that is pursuing a policy to ensure that it becomes the kind of place where World Wars start.

This was on Friday of this week in the New York Times by Jodi Rudoren: Israel Backs Limited Strike Against Syria:

Israeli officials have consistently made the case that enforcing Mr. Obama’s narrow “red line” on Syria is essential to halting the nuclear ambitions of Israel’s archenemy, Iran. More quietly, Israelis have increasingly argued that the best outcome for Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war, at least for the moment, is no outcome.

... “This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”

After years of upheaval in the Middle East and tension between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the two leaders are now largely in sync on how to handle not just Syria, but also Egypt. Mr. Obama has not withheld American aid to Egypt after the military-backed ouster of the elected Islamist government, while Israel strongly backs the Egyptian military as a source of stability.

As we enter into the time period that Long Cycle Theorists such as George Modelski warn us (pdf) is the type of historical period in which World Wars start ... I question the wisdom of any deliberate policy of bleeding both side of the Syrian conflict dry through ongoing Civil War. The more that such a policy "succeeds", the more and more Syria looks like the kind of place where a World War begins.




Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)


ok, now i'm tired and maybe not thinking as clearly as i would

like, but i think you're right in looking at Syria as being the kind of place where World Wars start, and though circumstances do seem a little different, the times have drastically changed wince we had a world war. 

i would say that in this case (and this is my more parochial thinking) is that the ME in general and especially since the fall of the Ottomans, has been the world powers' playground in terms of what they "control" etc. but while the countries in the ME, Syria included, are sovereign, they don't have the power *outside* of their immediate sphere (the ME) to set of the world on their own, like WWI and WWII.

with the exception of Israel (and sometimes they aren't an exception), the ME is a self contained warring ground between various tribes/ethnicities/religious strains. this in and of itself wouldn't make it necessarily a natural ground for a World War. it's the powers that be in the rest of the world and their various alliances and interests that those countries in the ME that make the Syria be the possible ingredient sparking a WW. 

and any one of the ME countries could be a spark like that, but i think that with the place the world powers that be are in, that that makes it very possible that Syria indeed could spark WWIII.


and we need to be more mindful of history both of the world, the PTB in it, and the ME too...

great post on points that need to be pondered by the PTB as well as the rest of us...


Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

Yes ... but where a World War is fought and where it starts ...

BruceMcF's picture

... are often quite different things. The Japanese side of WWII was fought primarily in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, with the Sino-Chinese war a backwater until a desperate final move by Japan in 1945. Poland was behind the front lines for the most decisive battles in WWII which took place in the Soviet Union itself, secondarily inside France in the Western Front that drained resources from the Eastern Front at a critical juncture. The Balkans were a secondary theater of war in WWI, with the main action the trench warfare of northern France and the war of movement in Eastern Europe between Germany/Austria and the Soviet Union. And the climactic campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars took place in Russia and in the Iberian Peninsula.

Up to the last couple of years, Syria has not been the kind of place where World Wars get started. Over the past couple of years, it has been moving in that direction.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)