History repeats itself, and historians repeat each other. We are witnessing a case of one or the other in the current situation in Syria, where religious conflict has called to mind the religious conflicts of 16th and 17th century Europe. If Europe ended its religious wars with the Peace of Westphalia, the thinking goes, a new Peace of Westphalia may be the prescription for bringing peace to Middle East.
A quick recap of the events leading up to the first Westphalia: Martin Luther started the Reformation in 1517, and a major competing version of Protestantism arose in the 1530’s under John Calvin. Every Christian state in Europe struggled to come to grips with this movement, but the ones that saw the most fighting between Protestants and Catholics were France, the Low Countries, and the Holy Roman Empire (now Germany). In 1618, civil war broke out in the Empire between Protestants and Catholics, and gradually drew in other European states until nearly the whole Continent was fighting. It was over a generation before the fighting in Germany finally stopped. The settlement, signed in 1648 in two small towns in Westphalia, gave considerable latitude to subordinate rulers within the Empire to manage religious affairs within their realms, while guaranteeing certain basic rights to religious minorities – a federalist solution that would make Americans proud.
Islam has its own problem with disputing versions Shia and Sunni, dating back to the 7th century. Only recently, however, have Westerners begun seeing it as an analogue to Europe’s religious struggles. As long as Sadam Hussein and Bashar Assad managed the religious divisions in their countries, however ruthlessly, the split within Islam was peaceful for the most part. With the breakdown of authority in Iraq and Syria and the bloody wars there between the two Islamic sects, religious differences have suddenly become an international issue of the first order. Unlike the war against generic “Islamic extremists,” which could be viewed in terms of the long-term conflict between the West and Islam, these new civil wars can’t be easily pigeon-holed and are causing analysts to stretch their imaginations to come up with solutions.
As far as I can tell, the first person to compare the situation in Syria with the Peace of Westphalia was Henry Kissinger, in 2012. He did so in entirely conventional terms: Westphalia, he wrote, is the foundation of our international order, and it is based on state sovereignty. Intervening in Syrian affairs would compromise the principle of sovereignty and thereby risk unleashing another Thirty Years’ War on the world. Ironically, within a few years scholars were drawing the exact opposite lessons from the past, seeing the Peace of Westphalia not as a reason to stay out of Syria but as a model for intervention. At least two academic conferences have been organized on the basis of comparing Europe’s religious wars with the Middle East’s, one of them explicitly pointing toward the Peace of Westphalia as a model for a solution.
These scholars are certainly right about one thing: the Peace of Westphalia says nothing about sovereignty or non-intervention. We can blame the tradition of “historians repeating themselves” that the connection between Westphalia and sovereignty ever became popular in the first place, as one writer after another repeated the claim without investigating its origins until it became an unquestionable orthodoxy. Anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Prudhon, who first proposed that Westphalia endorsed the principle of sovereignty (as an aside in an article that he wrote on the much later treaties of 1815), would probably have been astonished how thoroughly his idea informed international relations theory in the second half of the 20th century. Instead of approving non-intervention, Westphalia did the opposite: it endorsed France and Sweden’s intervention in the Holy Roman Empire to protect the rights of religious minorities.
To that extent, it makes sense to look to Westphalia as a model for a peace in Syria that would be brokered by outside powers such as the U.S. and Russia. But if we look at the comparison any closer, we find that it is an exceeding weak model for peace. Whereas the Holy Roman Empire already had a history stretching back 700 years or more by 1648, Syria is a relatively recent creation of the retreating colonial powers that owes more to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 than to the sort of organic process that created the Empire over centuries and fostered such a strong sense of unity among its inhabitants. During that time, the Empire had become politically decentralized, managing to continue to exist in spite of the fact that its subordinate duchies, counties, and cities conducted their own foreign policies and even raised their own armies. It was a difficult task, and there was a tendency for border regions of the Empire to become independent (such as the Dutch Republic in 1648) or get incorporated into other states (such as Alsace, which was absorbed into France before the end of the century). Yet it was functional to a surprising extent. The quasi-independent units paid taxes, submitted to Imperial justice, and even waged war as part of the Empire.
It is difficult to imagine Syria surviving a similar decentralization. Hardly anything binds Syrians together that does not also bind them to other people – Muslim Arabs, Kurds, Druze – in neighbouring states. Regional governments exist, but have no tradition of operating independently or of co-ordinating their relations with each other. The division of Syria into smaller, more religiously homogeneous regions would likely result in civil war, possibly leading to re-unification, or to the regions’ withdrawing entirely from Syria and joining with those they share most in common with. Would Syrian Kurds be more likely to stay with Syria or to try to join with other Kurds in Iraq? This even presumes that relatively homogeneous units could be created out of Syria, which may be the case for Sunnis and Shi’ites, and perhaps Kurds, but what about Syria’s other religious groups, such as the Druze (3% of the population) or Christians (10%)? What about people who share a religion but are an ethnic minority, such as Armenians, Turkomens, and Circassians?
Then again, Syria would not have the advantages of settled neighbours the way the Holy Roman Empire did. The Empire was the last Christian state to resolve its religious problems in 1648, so it had little to fear from rebel groups in adjacent countries raiding or fomenting division among its provinces. Syria faces the opposite situation, as Lebanon and Iraq are still violently divided and show no signs of resolving their problems any time soon. To the contrary, it seems certain that extremists on both sides of the Islamic divide will continue to do their best to unify the region under a single religious law; and, failing that, to spread terrorism, fear, and disorder wherever they cannot control. No purely Syrian solution is going to solve the underlying conflict of goals because there are parties that have no intention to restrict themselves to national boundaries. That includes many Syrians, who may be forced to accept an agreement for a time, but are likely to ignore it as soon as the immediate threat is over.
The Westphalian model for Syrian peace, therefore, fails because the historical situations are only superficially similar. The Thirty Years’ War was the last war in Europe fought primarily for religious reasons. Does anyone think that the Syrian civil war will be the last Middle Eastern war fought for religious reasons?
Written by dcroxton
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