[Note: This post originally appeared on my blog on February 9, 2014.] The idea of linking Syria and Westphalia had never occurred to me until I stumbled across it on an unrelated search last week. I found that it was not a new or isolated connection, but one that has been going since the beginning of the Arab Spring and has been raised by several people from different angles.
The earliest reference that I have seen (without spending much time trying to ferret out exactly how far back this goes) is this article by Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post nearly two years ago. He approaches Westphalia from the traditional standpoint of sovereignty, which is kind of depressing because I would hope that people would start getting over that mistake by now, but hardly surprising. Most other references I have seen link Syria and Westphalia in a similar fashion: intervention in Syria challenges the international order of sovereign states established in 1648 at Westphalia.
I have found one article that takes a completely different tack. It appeared in the “Los Angeles Review of Books” and was written by Robert Zaretsky under the title Syria and the Peace of Westphalia. Zaretsky makes passing reference to sovereignty as a key feature of Westphalia, but his argument is not about sovereignty or intervention at all. Instead, he approaches Syria as a region struggling to hold together a central government in spite of deep-seated religious differences among its people, much as the Holy Roman Empire was in the first half of the 17th century. He proposes a federalist solution along the lines of the Peace of Augsburg (1555), as modified by the Peace of Westphalia: different regions could have different established religions, and people who wanted to live in an area where their faith was predominant would be encouraged to move to one. If they chose to stay behind as a minority, “they would be granted limited rights and protection to practice their faith.”
Merely by recognizing that Westphalia was based on international intervention in the religious and political affairs of one state, Zaretsky has shown himself to understand it better than almost any other commentator. And, since I am a strong believer in federalism, I think his solution is promising. However, I would like to point out two differences with the situation in 1648 that make it problematic. The first is that the Holy Roman Empire was already politically decentralized to an extreme degree. It needed no new structures to allow its constituent parts — duchies, counties, cities, and so forth — to exercise a large degree of self-government; they had already been doing so for centuries. In Syria, there is no tradition of regional government, so creating new territories along religious lines and setting up administrative organs would be a major challenge.
The other difference concerns the geopolitical situation around the Holy Roman Empire compared to that around Syria. The Empire was surrounded by states that had basically resolved their religious problems (mostly by eliminating the minorities in one way or another, but sometimes by compromise). The Reformation was over a century old by 1648; unlike in the 16th century, when restive minorities proselytized across the Continent and fomented rebellion, most of the missionary zeal had spent its force and political institutions had had a chance to adapt to new realities. There was, therefore, not much chance that the Empire’s religious peace would be upset by subversive outsiders. This was especially the case because of France’s role as a Catholic power which supported Protestant estates in the Empire. France did not want Catholics to unify the Empire, which would probably benefit their Habsburg opponents, but neither did they want to see Protestants make gains at the expense of Catholics. It was a difficult position to maintain, but as long as France was the most powerful nation in Europe, it was unlikely to allow either side to make drastic changes — as it had demonstrated in the 1630’s, when it intervened to limit the expansion of its own ally, Sweden.
Syria has none of these benefits. The Shi’a-Sunni conflict, although many centuries old, has not settled into anything like mutual toleration. Both sides have shown themselves willing to use terrorism to destabilize their opponents, which makes it difficult for any state to hold together, especially one that would be based on a loose, federal structure. Chronic instability in its neighbours, Lebanon and Iraq, creates an even greater challenge for Syria. There is also always a possibility that the government might become involved in a foreign war, and the Holy Roman Empire offers little encouragement in this regard, since different estates took different sides in several foreign conflicts after 1648. The Empire was able to remain together in spite of this because it had centuries of history, a common language, and common institutions in its favour; it is doubtful if a federated Syria would be able to come together again after its parts fought each other.
The conflict between Austria and Prussia — nominally both part of the Empire — was itself a driving force behind the international conflicts in the middle of the 18th century. Would a federated Syria also tempt foreign powers to seek relations with individual Syrian regions, perhaps with the overt aim of defending that region’s religious position, but with a covert intention to weaken the central government and perhaps ultimately to take over? It is precisely the fact that the Peace of Westphalia was not based on state sovereignty that creates a difficulty with this solution, because the introduction of semi-sovereign units below the state level expands the opportunities for conflict enormously. Sovereignty creates issues of its own, but in a volatile region where governments have little respect for each other’s legitimacy, the existence of a powerful central government limits opportunities for meddling.