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The Maastricht Diplomat

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The new Balkans

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

by Johannes Schroeten

Does history repeat itself? No doubt, there are similarities and distinctions alike between the past and today. And yet, it is impressive and deeply worrying that the situation in Syria has turned into something which shares core characteristics with the Balkan crisis on the dawn of the 20th Century. Just a quick historical recap: After two Balkan wars, the first between the Balkan nations against the Ottoman Empire in 1912, the second between the Balkan nations amongst each other in 1913, the situation in 1914 is dangerously destabilised. Any further action could result in a crisis of unknown consequences. The deep interrelations on the Balkan allow no clear sides. Alliances are swinging back and forth, no clear structure and international agreement is given to clarify the situation. It is not helpful either that two great powers have a core interest in the Balkans, namely Austria-Hungary and Russia. In his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war, the historian Christopher Clark argued that through the engagement of the two great powers, “the conflict of the Balkan theatre became tightly intertwined with the geopolitics of the European system, creating a set of escalatory mechanisms”.

Far from comparing some autocratic nations in a pre-globalised world of the early nineteen hundreds with a conflict in the 21st century, it is still interesting to look for some common aspects. Within less than a decade, Syria has transformed from a stable, yet autocratic country into a war torn region of civil war in which all parties are fighting against anyone else.

The Syrian army, loyal to President Assad, still controls some key parts of the country. Their major military advantage lies in the Air Force and the use of chemical weapons. Such use was condemned by the United States as a red line, yet led to fewer consequences than expected. The Free Syrian army is the largest and most influential group among the rebels. It controls cities like Homs, but also parts of the capital Damascus which is subject to constant fights between Rebels and Assad’s forces.

Since the summer of 2014, the Islamic State has taken over major parts of Syria, controlling around 15% of the former Syrian territory. The cruelty and aggressiveness of the radical Islamic group has spawn great concern and outrage in the international community. ISIS is fighting the Rebels, Kurds and the President’s army alike. Divided into many sub organisations, the Kurds control the north of Syria. Key-actors are the Peshmerga, but also the fighters of the PKK, a banned party in Turkey. The Kurds are fighting mostly against ISIS and aim for their own state. Right now, an autonomous government controls a northern Syrian region, called Rojava (“Western-Kurdistan”).

That being said, the actors coming from outside Syria are playing an equally important role. Armed forces of Iraq and Iran, both Shiites, are fighting against the Sunnite Islamic state. However, both countries along with the Shiite militia Hezbollah, also support President Assad. At the same time, a coalition of Sunnite Saudi-Arabia, the United States and Turkey supports the rebel groups against the President. Furthermore, since August 2014, a coalition of NATO-countries conduct air strike operations against positions of ISIS. The United States and other Partners also support the Kurds with military equipment and training. Turkey, however, has shown resilience to give support to the Kurds, while being accused of letting ISIS-fighters cross the Turkish-Syrian border.

As the Russian federation enters the conflict, the chaos is complete. Although stating that its main target would be ISIS, Russia has reportedly conducted air strikes on rebel positions. Furthermore, Russia, along with China, did block a UN-resolution against the Syrian president in the Security Council in October 2011. Thus, the strategy and interests of Russia have yet to be revealed.

One thing is already evident: The conflict on Syrian soil has merged into a world crisis in which old powers once again stand on opposite sides and a small spark, a mislead missile, an unintentional air strike could lead to an escalation with unknown consequences. Similar to the Balkan crisis in 1914, it might seem that world peace is at stake.

The Syrian civil war, however, is only the eruption of a long broiling conflict under a fragile surface which finally has cracked up. It will depend on a reasonable, diplomatic approach in order to contain and solve the crisis on a regional level. Yet, it might be a light in the dark that, contrary to the escalation in 1914, the great powers are well aware of their terrible potential of destruction. Both Russia and the US know for the unbearable risk for the world which an open war would create. The heavy interdependence in economic, financial and political terms in a globalised world will prevent the creation of two self-sustaining power blocks similar to 1914 or the cold war.

Syria should not be the stage for NATO and Russia to act out their disparities, but rather the chance to show their commitment to solve the crisis. A solution to the most twisted conflict for years may be only achieved through a mutual action by the international community. All leaders, no matter what nationality, would do well to remember the dreadful consequences which a chauvinist and ignorant behaviour triggers in a crisis like the one at hand.


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