How history echoes Syria’s unholy war
This should tell us something about the present conflict in Syria.
The wholesale slaughter that followed could not have been imagined in 1618, when mainly Protestant Bohemia rose up against the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. The subsequent wars — there were several — drew in Habsburg Spain and Austria, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Denmark and the big German principalities. England, Scotland, the Ottoman Empire and Russia all claimed walk-on parts.
The fighting was mostly on German soil, but the battles were between armies of foreign mercenaries. As befits wars conducted in the name of God, cruelty and brutality were endemic.
By many accounts, the population of Germany was cut by a third or more. Torture and mass burnings of alleged witches were commonplace.
Confessional loyalties were sometimes elbowed aside by secular ambitions. Thus Catholic France joined up with Protestant Sweden against its co-religionists in Spain and Austria — just, perhaps, as Shia Iran now finds advantage in allying itself with Sunni Hamas. Protestant Denmark fought at different moments on either side of the confessional divide. Competing Lutherans and Calvinists
By 1648, the wars had recast the geopolitical balance. France emerged a victor, the Holy Roman Empire a loser. Westphalia became a foundation for the modern European state. If there was a thread running through the various treaties that settled the territorial disputes it was that the confessional choices of states should no longer be a casus belli. Today’s Middle East, with the same combustible mix of theological and earthly rivalry, is a long way from reaching such an understanding.
For the US and its allies, the overarching interest is the re-establishment of regional stability and the defeat of the Isis jihadis. But this is a conflict that defies partial solutions. An eventual peace will demand the unravelling of the confessional and the temporal — that religion surrenders to realpolitik.
The Gordian knot is the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but a settlement would have also to acknowledge Russia’s interests and Turkey’s fears. Impossible, many will say. Maybe.
But until it happens, today’s Syria will live the horrors of 17th-century Germany; and Isis will continue to find a safe haven for its twisted credo.