War Stories

The Middle East in 2015 Is a Lot Like Europe in 1914

How did that work out again?

DRK paramedics and a burned Sanitaetswagen, or ambulance, on the,DRK paramedics and a burned Sanitaetswagen, or ambulance, on the World War I battlefield, between 1914 and 1918.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and US President Barack Obama. In the background, German Red Cross paramedics and a burned Sanitaetswagen, or ambulance, on a World War I battlefield, between 1914 and 1918.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by DRK/ullstein bild via Getty Images and Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Watching the events cascading in Syria makes it eerily easy to see how the political elites of 1914 stumbled into World War I while believing they were pursuing a sensible set of national interests.

The parallels are far from precise. The alliances bonding the players in today’s Middle East aren’t as interlocking as those in early 20th-century Europe. The war-mobilizing machinery isn’t as rigid. And, of course, today’s leaders have the precautionary example of World War I to rivet their attention: They know the pitfalls of escalation and the tragic consequences of unbounded warfare—though people don’t always heed the lessons of the past.

Like the Europe of 101 years ago, the Middle East today is a tinderbox, with plenty of kindling supplied by the combination of weak regimes, millenarian militias, and freelance rebels of various persuasion, each faction backed (or directly armed and aided) by larger powers, some engaged in proxy wars, others drawn in for converging motives while trying to resist the centripetal pull of deeper involvement (with diminishing success). It doesn’t require a wild imagination to envision the lighting of a match—some contemporary counterpart to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

Consider the array of elements:

President Obama stepped up airstrikes against ISIS one year ago, with the intent of focusing the effort in Iraq (which had a quasi-allied government and a familiar array of military commanders) while putting Syria (which had neither) on the back burner. When this plan proved infeasible (because ISIS was rooted in Syria), he started training and equipping some “moderate” rebels, if just so he could tell the region’s Sunni leaders that he was doing something about Syria. This approach backfired when these U.S.-trained rebels were pummeled on the battlefield, and it may have backfired further this week, when Russian cruise missiles destroyed a weapons depot of a CIA-funded rebel force in southern Syria. All of this puts Obama in a spot. Does he back away or go into wait-and-see mode to avoid the escalating the conflict, or does he rise to the challenge by pouring more resources into a mission that he’s never seen as particularly vital? The first choice risks alienating allies, who clamor for more tangible commitment from America (while, in some cases, shirking from seeing their own boys bloodied); the second risks inciting a war with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent planes, tanks, and possibly “volunteer” troops, in recent weeks, to help shore up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his only politico-military ally outside the former Soviet Union. In recent days, he has gone further and launched cruise missiles—26 of them just on Wednesday—from ships 1,000 miles away, in the Caspian Sea, reportedly hitting not only a few ISIS targets but also some of the “moderate” rebel groups that the United States and other countries in the region have been supporting.

But Putin, who is often portrayed as a strategic wizard (by some American columnists and legislators, no less avidly than by his own PR teams), may be digging himself in a hole as well. On a merely technical level, the Russian military hasn’t conducted prolonged air-to-ground operations for many years, and there’s some evidence it doesn’t know how. CNN reported Thursday (and a senior administration official confirmed to me) that four Russian cruise missiles crashed in Iranian territory on their way to Syria. It is unknown as yet how many of the other 22 actually hit their targets inside Syria and how many veered a quarter-mile or so off course. (Some of their missiles have primitive guidance systems compared with the most advanced satellite-guided U.S. models.) Will some Russian missile, perhaps one launched tomorrow, crash into an American base in Iraq? Then what?

Then, as often happens with Putin’s Russia, there are the sheer puzzlers. This week, two Russian planes crossed into Turkish airspace—deliberately, according to U.S. defense officials. One of the planes engaged in “provocative” behavior with Turkish planes that were scrambled in the air. At least two other Russian planes have nearly collided with U.S. surveillance drones—one perhaps accidentally, the other with a clear intent to shadow the drone. What if this happens again and the Turks shoot down the Russian plane or the Russians shoot down a Turkish plane? Turkey is a NATO ally; it could invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and demand help from its allied nations. The possibilities of mistakes and miscalculations—or bizarrely intentional affronts—seem limitless.

On Oct. 1, Pentagon officials gave their Russian counterparts a “memorandum of understanding,” laying out the frequencies of U.S. pilots’ radio communications and other basic information to minimize the chances of one side interfering with the other’s operations. This is standard procedure whenever two or more countries—friend, foe, or otherwise—fly in the same airspace. But so far, the Russians haven’t responded.

Besides protecting Assad’s regime or strengthening Russia’s foothold in Syria so that it plays a role in picking a successor if Assad himself is somehow ousted, it’s unclear what Putin is up to. Given the state of Russia’s military technology (about a decade behind ours), its inexperience at high-tempo combat operations, and its inability to send many ground troops (conscripts are out of the question, and special-ops forces may be weary from, or still based in, eastern Ukraine), Putin probably can’t keep this up for very long. Some regional specialists predict his airstrikes will be counterproductive, rousing more jihadis to the battlefield—and possibly radicalizing the “moderate” rebels whose outposts they’ve damaged.

Then again, it’s not entirely clear what the United States is up to, either. In this season’s (surprisingly cogent) first episode of Homeland, Peter Quinn, who’s spent the previous two years doing targeted killings of jihadis in Syria, is lecturing a panel of CIA analysts. One of them asks, “Is our strategy working?” Quinn replies, “What strategy? Tell me what our strategy is, and I’ll tell you if it’s working.” The room goes silent, and I suspect that, if this were a scene from real life, the room would have gone silent as well.

The Obama administration’s broad aim is to defeat ISIS while imposing diplomatic and military pressures that might lead to Assad’s ouster from power and a transition to a new Syrian government that doesn’t kill its own people. The problem is that it’s very hard to achieve one of these goals—and practically (perhaps logically) impossible to do both.

Defeating ISIS will require a joint—or at least a common—campaign by several forces in the region (nations, armies, and militias), including Iran and probably the Syrian army. Yes, Assad’s brutality against his own people sired the resentment that ISIS exploited, and the ensuing civil war left a vacuum of power and institutions that ISIS shrewdly filled. But Assad, or someone capable of leading his army, is probably needed in the short term to crush ISIS—especially as long as other interested parties are reluctant to do much, for various reasons. (The U.S. isn’t going to send ground troops, Turkey regards the Kurds as a greater danger than ISIS, the Sunni Arab and Gulf states will do only so much if fighting ISIS means strengthening Iran and Shiite militias.) Meanwhile, the Obama administration is holding back from overt cooperation with Iran or Syria—in part for obvious political reasons, in part to avoid angering the Sunni allies, in part because Iran and Syria don’t want to cooperate, or be seen cooperating, with America.

This is the main source of ISIS’s strength, which would otherwise be outmatched by the combined force of its enemies: Most of these enemies fear or detest some of the other anti-ISIS entities more than they fear or detest ISIS. Obama and the other members of the would-be coalition have no real strategy, until they figure out how to overcome this problem—until they devise a plan and pave a path toward unity: if not unity of ultimate goals (which is unrealistic), then unity of at least operational tactics.

Some of Obama’s critics decry his resistance to military entanglements that might escalate out of control. But in a region where so much is beyond anyone’s control, and where so many armed factions have converging and conflicting interests with one another, a resistant president is far preferable to one whose first instinct is to assert American power with unjustified bravado—or to view Russia’s recent steps through a Cold War lens. However imperial Putin’s swagger might seem, the Soviet empire is long kaput. Syria is the only country outside the former Soviet Union where Russia has a solid military ally and something of a base—and Putin had to move in with force because it was on the verge of collapse.

At the same time, the West, including the United States, can’t afford to view the Syrian conflict as an obscure, intractable blood feud that it would be best to ignore. A case might have been made for this position several months ago, but can’t be made now given that 4 million Syrians have sought refuge—and sparked a humanitarian, economic, and political crisis—throughout Europe. Some of these millions are fleeing Assad, some are fleeing ISIS, but most are simply fleeing war.

Stopping the war, or at least drastically curtailing its scope and violence, should be the prime goal of any outside power’s strategy, whatever the geopolitical compromises it might entail. Meanwhile, all tactical operations should be geared toward minimizing the mishaps and miscalculations that could expand the war or enflame the violence—in other words, toward extinguishing the first flicker of a flame that might repeat the pattern of World War I.