Tag Archives: Syria

The Thirty Years’ War as Foil for the War in Syria

This year, we are commemorating the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). It was the most comprehensive, complex, devastating and brutal armed conflict in human history up to that point. In fact, many seventeenth-century sources called it the “Great World War.” When the war began in 1618, it was primarily a conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the German Empire. The emperor and many territorial princes sought to push back the influence of Protestantism and to reclaim the territories and cities that had switched to the new faith.

A second layer of conflict was what we would call the Federalism debate today. The emperor sought to consolidate his power over the territories and cities, both Lutheran and Catholic, who in turn were fiercely protective of their privileges. The immediate trigger for the war was the effort of the Bohemian estates to prevent the Hapsburg dynasty from establishing the dominium absolutum, that is absolutist rule, in their homeland that lead to the defenestration of imperial envoys–they literally were thrown out the window at Prague Castle.

Prague Defenestration of 1618. Copper engraving by Johann Philipp Abelin (1635)

Early wins by the Catholic Emperor against Protestants led to the weakening of support from Catholic princes who feared the Emperor would use his battlefield successes to force all princes into submission, Protestant and Catholic.

The third layer was the complex geostrategic context. Early territorial gains by the Emperor brought Protestant Denmark and Sweden into the war who wanted to support Protestants in North Germany. Sweden also saw an opportunity to control the Baltic coast of Germany. Catholic France supported the Protestants as well because they did everything to break the hegemonial stranglehold by the House of Hapsburg–the Hapsburgs held both the Imperial and the Spanish crowns. They also wanted to expand their territory to the Rhine river.

This constellation led to a dynamic of shifting coalitions that made the war unwinnable for any side. While the Emperor was the only stakeholder who realistically could have won the war, the coalition supporting him crumbled the more successful he was on the battlefield. What resulted is one of the longest and protracted conflicts in human history. The devastation to German cities was immense, and the cost in human life immeasurable. The destruction of the city of Magdeburg in 1631 was just one of many atrocities of the war.

Sack of Magdeburg in 1631. Copper engraving by Daniel Manasser (1632, detail)

Money ran short on all sides, mercenaries did not get paid, and supply lines did not work. As a result, many regular units, but also groups of mercenaries, ransacked landscapes and raped, plundered, and killed at will.  People fled where they could. Millions got killed, many more got displaced. This perhaps is the first war in European history whose victims were primarily civilians. Jacques Callot (1592-1635) showed the immense brutality of the war against civilians in his native Lorraine in his stunning series of etchings called The Great Miseries of War.

Jacques Callot: Looting and Burning of a Village (1633)

What does this have to do with the brutal and complex war in Syria that arose out of the 2011 Arab Spring protests? The German historian Herfried Münkler described the Thirty Years’ War as a conflict that was very difficult to end from the outside and that military interventions from the outside usually effected the opposite of their declared intentions. In his view, the current war in Syria is a conflict of the same type.

There are a large number of players in the War in Syria pursuing diverging interest and engaging in shifting alliances. The Syrian government is supported by Russia, but also by Iran and Hezbollah. Then there are a number of rebel groups who work together sometimes, and sometimes they fight each other. ISL is attempting to get a foothold in Syria. The Kurdish Front sees an opportunity to create a Kurdish state, combining territories in Syria and Iraq. The Turks, fearing a Kurdish insurgency in their own country, are fighting this effort. Israel is attacking positions in Syria periodically, as have the US in the past. There is great concern that Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Israel will get sucked in more deeply.

As in the Thirty Year’s War, there is dynamic of shifting coalitions that make it impossible for any party to win. Furthermore, there are forces who are interested in maintaining the conflict. The Russians, for instance, want to keep the Syrian refugee crisis going in order to further destabilize the European Union, a strategy that has worked quite well so far. Just like in the Thirty Years’ War, the toll on the civilian population has been immense: millions have been killed, raped, or have lost their livelihood and were forced to flee. The city of Aleppo, a major commercial hub in the Levant for two millennia, has been mostly leveled, and now the world is watching as the city of Idlib is just about to be ground into dust.

Johann Rist: Peace-Wishing Germany (1647)

How does it all end? There is no clear path to peace in Syria at this point. The Thirty Years’ War ended because the warring parties finally recognized that victory was impossible. Germany was bled out, and there was little to gain at that point–it took Germany a century to recover from the devastation. There was a tremendous war fatigue, and there was a growing consensus that the war needed to end, no matter the conditions or circumstances. The war in Syria may have to end this way as well. But there are no signs that we are nearing this point.



Reinfeldt to Obama: “You’re now in Sweden, a small country.”

On his way to the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, President Barack Obama stopped in Stockholm on September 4 to visit Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. During their joint press conference, Reinfeldt in his opening statement summarized the issues being discussed in their private meeting and said this about the situation in Syria: “Sweden condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria in the strongest possible terms. It’s a clear violation of international law. Those responsible should be held accountable. Sweden believes that serious matters concerning international peace and security should be handled by the United Nations.” Obama tried to gloss over the apparent differences in his own opening statement: “I respect–and I’ve said this to the prime minister–the U.N. process.”


President Obama with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. (Screenshot: whitehouse.gov)

Later, Obama explained his views in response to a question on Syria to both leaders. Reinfeldt responded to Obama in this unexpected way: “Just to remind you, you’re now in Sweden–a small country with a deep belief in the United Nations.” While expressing understanding for Obama’s position, he added a little later: “But this small country will always say let’s put our hope into the United Nations.” Why did Reinfeldt remind Obama that Sweden was a small state, and what was the real message he had for Obama?

Throughout history, small states routinely disappeared from maps or became client states of larger neighbors—the history of Poland or the fate of small states in both World Wars could serve as examples. Ironically, the two World Wars (and de-colonization) triggered an unprecedented proliferation of small states which was followed by equally unprecedented political protection of small states anchored in international law and guaranteed by international organizations, particularly by the United Nations which has served as a de facto accreditation agency for small states.

Since 1945, power relations have been primarily regulated by international organizations rather than by armed conflict. Small states profited from the rise of multilateralism as it reduced the power differential associated with smallness and offered them agency and disproportionate political influence in an increasingly globalized world.

The events leading to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 offer a textbook example of how this dynamic can play out in an international conflict. The United States preferred a unilateral path by building a “Coalition of the Willing” that constituted a community of values promoting “freedom” and “democracy.” President George W. Bush’s phrase “You’re either with us or you are against us” symbolized the ideological polarization his brand of unilateralism fostered–which created great anxiety in small states who wanted to sit out this conflict.

Small states, on the other hand, insisted on building a community of laws and thus creating a multilateral path, based on resolutions passed by the UN Security Council–a step that would be elusive in the brewing conflict over Iraq, as it appears to be in the Syrian conflict now. Small states want actions by the international community to be based on laws and on treaties and to be embedded in the framework of the United Nations—an approach that has served well to protect small-state interests since 1945.

So Reinfeldt’s unusually blunt comment was a history lesson to remind Obama how American unilateralism spectacularly failed in the past—particularly in Iraq. It also was a reminder that small states think and act differently and prefer a multilateral conflict resolution within the framework of the United Nations—even though both Reinfeldt and Obama agree that President Assad’s horrendous crimes against his own population constitute a violation of international law. This reminder must have stung as Obama is the most multilateralist president in recent memory. Not surprisingly, the only reference to Syria in the official Joint Statement was that “we strongly condemn any and all use of chemical weapons.”

Reinfeldt in the press conference quickly moved on from this point of discord and instead focused on humanitarian aid–an area on which this small Scandinavian state has built part of its reputation and which is an important source of national identity:  “You’re also in a country where, I think yesterday or the day before, we took the decision that all the people that are now coming from the war in Syria are allowed to stay permanently in Sweden.” Humanitarianism is a proven safe ground for small states that want to make a mark in a globalized world.