Today's World; A World Seen Before
Is History Stuck On Repeat?
“History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.” (Sydney J. Harris) It would appear the population of the world, with all the genius and intellectual brain power on Earth, is somehow doomed to relearn the same lessons of history on a constant repeating loop. Everywhere in the world, after a disaster or crisis, the air is filled with thoughts and statements of ‘How could this happen?’ and ‘Never could have imagined…” Is the world really so mysterious and mystical that there exists no resolution to the never ending loop? War seems to always be a product of this ‘caught off guard’ narrative, and yet war is seemingly as common throughout history as any other concept/event. It almost seems to define mankind. Why is the planet’s human population then, still so shocked by the beginnings of wars?
The first world war’s beginning is often explained as being due to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but was one man really so significant to the entire world’s nations that his death would spark a global war? Most understand the general concept that the alliances and treaties/agreements the world’s nations had is really what escalated an assassination by a Serbian extremist into all out world war. Of course, these two ideas are technically true, but it would seem many settle at the outskirts of these ideas as justification for the war that ensued. Further analysis, however, may arguably be deemed a necessity in the context of understanding history’s repeating cycle.
The first thing to understand apart from the general concept of all the allegiances is the mentality and aspirations of Serbia. For several reasons Serbia ultimately wanted to lay claim over certain areas that they didn’t have control of at the time. This area was the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Leading up to the assassination these areas fell under the control of Austria-Hungary. Due to this, the relations that existed between Serbia and Austria-Hungary were uneasy to say the least. By all accounts it really shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that these two countries were heading in the direction of war. Whatever possible doubts of this there may have been certainly went out the window upon a Serbian extremist assassinating the Archduke, which resulted in Austria-Hungary declaring war against Serbia.
Prior to the assassination, Serbia and Russia had an agreement and alliance in which Russia would back Serbia in the event of any aggression directed at one or the other. As a result of this agreement, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia began mobilizing their military to defend and assist Serbia against their enemy, Austria-Hungary. By all professional analysis, Austria-Hungary, in all likelihood, didn’t have much of a chance in fending off Serbia with Russia’s assistance. However, Serbia was not the only country to have struck a deal and made an alliance. Germany, at that point in time had an alliance with Austria-Hungary, and, upon Russia mobilizing its military, formally declared war on Russia.
One by one the dominos fell from the result of an assassination. Upon Germany’s declaration of war on Russia, France, being allied with Russia, declared war on Germany as a result. The result of that declaration from France manifested into Germany’s own declaration, and they, then, moved to strike first by invading Belgium with the overall aim being to attack France. However, upon this preemptive strike by Germany; France, Britain, and Belgium all had an alliance and agreement with each other. Thus, Germany invading Belgium sparked a response from Britain ultimately pulling the English into the war against Germany. Now, having Britain formally pulled into the war, Japan was also an ally of Britain. Coincidentally, Japan now had their hand forced as well and entered into the war. Later on, Italy and the United States would also enter into what quickly escalated into the first world war. Ultimately, most experts would agree that the assassination of the Archduke really had very little meaning to the majority of the nations that became engaged in war. Instead, it seemed every country was ultimately serving their own best interests in regards to their foreign policies and allegiances.
Moving forward to today, the entire world has essentially watched on virtually every news media platform as Syria has spiraled out of control into a bloody civil war. In five years over 450,000 people have been killed with over one million injured and twelve million, half of the country’s total population before the war, displaced into refugee status. It is important to understand, first, how such a civil war materialized. Basically, protests in support of the Arab Spring arose within Syria against the leader, Bashar Al-Assad. These protests were met with an iron fist by Assad in the means of hundreds being imprisoned or killed outright. Along with these protests and the harsh response by the leader, a lack of general freedoms in addition to significant economic woes became the main underlying cause of what has grown into a devastating civil war. While protestors have risen up against Assad, some of Assad’s own military personnel helped establish this rebellion in an effort to remove him from power.
Similar to Iraq’s past experience, most of Syria’s population is Sunni, which is basically the opposite group of Bashar Al-Assad. This distinction may seem insignificant to the modernized world, but after a decade of war in Iraq by the U.S. and its allies, it would suggest, perhaps, that these divisions in culture and ethnic backgrounds are very significant when it seems to create massive bloodshed in the countries dealing with this division among the people. In addition to Syria’s Sunni uprising, Turkey, which borders Syria, is also a Sunni-majority country. Due to this simple fact, Turkey has implemented a response sympathetic to the Sunni rebels by providing weapons to the rebel groups opposing Assad. While Turkey may naturally be sympathetic to the Sunni population, they have certainly not acted on this lone thought. Instead, being a NATO country, they have operated with the general approval of the rest of NATO.
Generally, at least in most cases, this response from Turkey and the civil war in Syria, itself, would arguably be of little significance to the Western world. However, this civil war is not the typical hostile uprisings of the Middle East and Muslim world. Several groups of fighters have all pulled together to fight against Assad, including groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah groups. Additionally, Iran, which has almost always wanted control or at least influence over Iraq, has jumped into the fold fighting against ISIS after the group advanced out of Syria into Fallujah. Ironically enough, Iran and Syria’s Assad have an alliance to each other as well, which has allowed the two countries to maintain some level of control over the Middle East, and away from Saudi Arabia who seems to be siding with Turkey and NATO by siding against Assad and with the rebel groups. While most of the parties in play would expect to have an effect solely on the Muslim and Middle East world, the Western world to include Britain and the U.S. are involved as well with serious critical implications. Unfortunately for the innocent people of Syria, it appears no country is really fighting for their sake, but instead, are fighting for their own aspirations that the civil war has provided the opportunity and means to achieve.
One of the biggest challenges making the Syrian civil war far more complicated is the allegiance and agreements that Assad has in the world. In addition to Iran, Russia led by President Vladimir Putin, has been one of Assad’s longest and arguably the most influential and powerful allies. While President Putin may be heavily criticized by the West, it has had virtually no effect on the Russian President’s stance in the Syrian conflict. Russia has actively engaged in bombing rebel “terrorist” groups, like ISIS, to assist Assad and his military operations. Russia has also provided military advisors and experts to assist Assad’s defenses. While Russia has seemingly never been opposed to being in the spotlight against NATO and the Western world, this situation has become far more significant since the beginning of the rebellion in Syria.
In addition to Russia providing assistance to their ally in Bashar Al-Assad, Russia also has key military bases in Syria that are allowed by Assad’s agreement with Putin. One of these is the naval base, Tartons, which serves as Russia’s sole base/port to the Mediterranean Sea and Russia’s Black Sea fleet. There is also a key air base in Latakia, which is in the heartland of Assad’s territory. So, while Putin and Russia may in fact be serving as a good ally to Bashar Al-Assad, it cannot go unnoticed that Russia has different strategic reasons for concerning themselves with the civil war raging in Syria and the future of the country as a whole.
In addition to simply bombing Assad’s enemies and providing advisors, Russia has established an alliance with Kurdish militaries which have been deemed as terrorist groups by the U.S. Regardless of those connections to terrorist groups, the Kurdish militants aligned with Russia pose a significant potential problem for Turkey. Turkey has a substantial Kurdish population in their own country which rests at the border of Syria. Due to the Russian intervention in Syria, the Kurdish militants have been allowed the opportunity to advance into areas of Syria they have never before had control over. This has allowed the potential for the Kurds to possibly unite their northwest territory with their northeast territory, which would create a significant territory right on the border of Turkey. Turkey’s ultimate concern would then become the idea that the Kurds could potentially desire greater autonomy, which could then lead to Kurds in Turkey desiring to be united with this new formation of Kurdish territory and possible new country, Kurdistan as was already declared by the Iraqi Kurdish population connected to the northeast territory in Syria.
The potential for a new and untied Kurdish front has certainly captured the attention of Turkey, but in addition to the Kurds in Syria gaining new territory, they also managed to cut off several supply lines from Turkey to anti-Assad groups in Syria. This coincidentally sparked a severe response from Turkey in August 2016 when they committed ground troops to push into Syria which they claimed was a move to liberate the border city of Jarablus from terrorists. While this claim seems honorable enough, it would also appear this move from Turkey also stopped the Syrian Kurdish militants from advancing further and connecting the northeast of Syria with the northwest area, all dominantly Kurdish territory. This move served to switch the stance and ‘understanding’ Turkey had with Russia from stopping and defeating extremist terrorist groups like ISIS, into as the leader of Turkey claimed, removing “cruel Assad” from power. Several articles and news sources eluded to the idea and question of whether or not Turkey was outright declaring war with Russia or not. Fortunately, a Russian representative, Dmitry Peskov, responded, as reported by the November 30th Newsweek article titled, Kremlin Puzzled by Erdogan Claims on ‘Cruel Assad’, “Before making any judgements we expect a clarification of this position.”
In addition to the seemingly change of position by Turkey, relations with Russia clearly hit a low point when a Russian fighter jet was shot down by Turkey. BBC ran an article in December 2015 titled Turkey’s downing of Russian warplane-what we know, claiming, according to Turkey, two unidentified planes crossed into Turkish air space and were warned ten times over five minutes to leave immediately. According to Turkey, one of those planes did leave but the other that didn’t was shot down by Turkey’s air force. In the BBC article, they give Russia’s response which seems to present some discrepancies in Turkey’s account of the situation. For instance, Russia claims the two fighter planes were not in Turkey air space, especially when the downed plane crashed in Syria four kilometers from the border of Turkey. The surviving pilot also claims no warnings were ever given to them. This event caused Russia to suspend the visa-free regime/agreement they had with Turkey. Russia also banned charter flights to Turkey, a top tourist destination for Russians, which hurt Turkey’s tourism economy. Russia also banned imports from Turkey while also banning Turkish companies operating in Russia.
To make the controversial event worse, Putin claimed to various news organizations that there was only one country who was aware of the flight plans and times of Russia’s fighter planes, which is claimed by Russia to be the exact spot their jet was shot down, the United States. This was disputed by the U.S. State Department that they were, in fact, not aware of Russia’s flight plans at all. According to Putin, however, exposing the massive lines of ISIS oil being smuggled out through Turkey is the real reason why the fighter jet was really shot down. In a December 2015 Foreign Policy In Focus article titled So Why Did Turkey Shoot Down That Russian Plane? A retired Lieutenant General Tom McInerney, a former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, on Fox News reported, “This airplane was not making any maneuvers to attack the [Turkish] territory…had to be preplanned.” Basically what the retired Lt. Gen. was suggesting is that had unidentified planes entered Turkish air space suddenly, there would not have been anyway for the Turkish air force to have sent their planes to shoot down these nonthreatening planes in the timeframe that has been declared and proven, unless Turkey was already preparing to shoot down the fighter planes beforehand. This obviously brings into the fold the idea that while the Syrian civil war is already complicated, outside nations seem to be increasing those complications, which could escalate the already delicate situation.
Furthermore, as if Russia and Turkey relations weren’t already under significant stress, one year later those relations have come under more stress. A December 2016 article by CNN titled Russia’s ambassador to Turkey assassinated in Ankara, the Russian ambassador to Turkey was invited to speak at an art gallery exhibit in Turkey’s Ankara. Shortly into the speech a Turkish police officer shot and killed the ambassador, Andrey Karlov while yelling “God is great” Muslim terrorist rhetoric. The shooter was ultimately gunned down by Turkish police, but there is some uncertainty as to the reasons for the vicious killing. With that said, however, Putin publically claimed that the attack was just ‘provocation’ to undermine Russia-Turkey relations. Putin was quoted, “The only response we should offer to this murder is stepping up our fight against terror…” Surprisingly enough, while the West would claim Putin to be a hostile aggressive authoritarian happy to watch the world burn, after having arguably every reason to incite war with Turkey, the Russian President has resisted an emotional and irrational response and given a more peace-seeking response to the killing.
This sole event could have posed as the spark that may have ignited another world war. How? NATO’s article V basically claims that an attack on any one member is an attack on all and can warrant military response. This article was invoked for the first time following the September 11th terrorist attack on the U.S. It was then also referred to, though not formally invoked upon, following Russia’s takeover of Crimea in Ukraine. While a direct military act would qualify as an attack, NATO agreed in June 2016 that a cyber-attack on one NATO nation also warrants a direct response, if such an attack is proven, from all NATO members including potential military force. This year in the U.S. elections has certainly seemed more like a roller coaster ride as well as, at times, a circus act. One element that was given a lot of attention by the Clinton campaign, was the idea of a cyber-attack type of interference by none other than Russia. While all of the U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed there exists no real evidence of such a claim, it does seem to suggest escalating hostility towards Russia from the West.
With all this information it would appear the world has almost come full circle as the never ending cycle of history may very well be at the world’s doorsteps. First, it is clear that several nations and organizations are not really working towards a peaceful diplomatic solution for Syria. Much like the first World War, various nations seem more concerned with attaining their own individual goals and aspirations. As if the world has learned nothing, nations seem to be repeating the mistakes of the past.
In addition, while self-interests are potentially dangerous enough, a spark is generally needed to ignite any fire. The possibilities of a spark indeed occurring are numerous to say the least. On one hand, the hacking rhetoric of the U.S. against Russia could create an arms race or another cold war. President Putin has, on multiple occasions, asked for any kind of evidence that would prove Russia has hacked any U.S. computer systems or networks. While the U.S. intelligence agencies have agreed there is no solid evidence for such a thing, Russia seems, for now, to be innocent of these alleged hacks. The claims of the U.S. could potentially lead Russia to seek further involvement and aggression against the U.S. via the Syrian civil war stage. It would seem almost inevitable any aggressive maneuver from Russia would incite an equal and opposite reaction from the U.S. and potentially all of NATO.
Aside from the two Cold War enemies’ relations, Turkey’s concerns over a united Kurdish front in Syria at their border could lead to a severe escalation of force. The Kurdish population, much like Serbia in World War I, desires a united territory to call Kurdistan and establish their own sovereign nation. Should they interpret Turkey’s ground forces to be a threat to their own sovereignty, they could very well declare war on a NATO country while also asking for Russia’s support in such an event. In this instance, all of NATO would, in all probability, come to the aid of Turkey. Simultaneously, if Russia would back the Kurds, then Iran and China could be called upon in response, which would, just like WWI, create another global war stemming from prior allegiances between nations.
Iran’s involvement in Iraq may trigger a response from the West, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it is Iran. Iran’s desire, just like Russia, to sustain an Assad allegiance and Assad-led Syria, may create a devastating escalation in the region especially with Saudi Arabia in the mix. Saudi Arabia has arguably held significant favor from the U.S. especially since the 9/11 terrorist attack and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Should Saudi Arabia find themselves up against Iran for dominance in the region, Saudi Arabia would most likely call for the support of the U.S. On the other side, if Iran finds themselves facing off against Saudi Arabia and the U.S., they would most likely call upon Russia’s support. This could ultimately bring NATO into the mix on one side, while China could align themselves on the other side.
The downing of a Russian jet or the assassination of a Russian ambassador could certainly lead to an escalating conflict between Russia and Turkey. There is no question the relationship between these two nations being on thin ice would probably be an improvement from where it is now. If the West is correct about their views of President Putin, then it would seem only a matter of time before he stops accepting excuses from Turkey and seeks out an act of aggression against them. As with the other scenarios, a direct act from Russia against Turkey would almost certainly result in NATO’s Article V being invoked, and would thus bring all of NATO into an armed conflict against Russia and their allies.
All in all, regardless of the actual event that sparks a fire, the potential for war seems to be surrounding the Syrian conflict with implications of spreading far beyond Syria’s borders much like World War I, when the Austria-Hungary and Serbian conflict escalated well beyond those borders. The real issue would, like the first World War, become the prior allegiances and agreements between nations. Whether that spark comes from the Kurds advancing their aspirations for a unified country, Iran’s aspirations to take control away from Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia’s aspirations to maintain control over the region, Turkey’s aspiration to prevent a united Kurdistan on their border, the hacking rhetoric of the U.S. leading to an aggressive Russian response, or Turkey and Russia relations spiraling beyond repair, the world is staring at a conflict with severe implications. Just like World War I spiraled out of control as a result of prior allegiances and individual nations’ aspirations, it would seem the world is now looking at another cycle of history repeating itself.
Finally, for the world to pretend to be caught off guard and to not recognize the early warning signs would be irresponsible. While most would hope for a peaceful solution that avoids war all together, it cannot be ignored that all the foundations for a new world war seem to be present. So long as these preliminary requisites for war remain existent in the world, it should be every nation’s responsibility to pursue actions that seek to avoid repeating mistakes already learned in the past. Can the world learn from history, or is the world doomed to watch the cycle repeat once again? It would seem, this time, the world cannot innocently claim the rhetoric of “Never could have imagined” or “How could this happen?” Isn’t it about time to prove that history is not so cunning in disguise and that the resemblance is, in fact, detectable?