Reading the newspapers of July 1914, the month before the outbreak of the first general European war in nearly a century, it's easy to wonder why almost no one was alarmed about the impending conflict. Most newspapers were following the dramatic trial of Madame Cailloux in France and not much attention was paid to what we now call the July Crisis.
After all, for Europeans a conflict on the scale of the First World War was outside of their living memory. The people of Europe were living through the most enduring period of general peace since the Napoleonic wars. And, all of this was focused on the Balkans, a group of nations known for their hostility and conflicted past. Three Balkan Wars had already erupted there over the preceding decade. Even the involvement of Great Powers like Austria and Russia was not particularly worrisome. Europe had danced close to a war over Sudan in 1898 as well as during the so-called Moroccan Crises in 1906 and 1911. More than forty years before in 1870 Prussia and France had fought a limited conflict that had been resolved relatively quickly, and whose consequences (albeit tremendous) were concentrated in the heart of continental Europe. So few commentators worried about the assassination of an Austrian prince in Sarajevo. Europe, it was believed, would not slip into a continental conflict over such a small incident. In fact, as Modris Eksteins has claimed in The Rites of Spring, war was far beyond the imagination of most Europeans.
Historians can examine the weeks before 4 August 1914 and see what governments and diplomats were discussing and how the European powers marched towards the Great War. We can see, for instance, that the British Cabinet was determined to help their ally France, but it was not until the invasion of Belgium that they convinced the liberals Ministers (and much of the British public) who were against British intervention. We can trace diplomatic correspondence as each nation mobilized and prepared for a conflict and attempt to understand why a war broke out. It is far easier to understand that war was approaching in July 1914 with hindsight.
Today as we wonder who will support whom in Syria (and why), we face another crisis in a long series of instability and problems in the Middle East. It seems to us as if few take the posturing of Russia and the United States over Syria seriously. After all, there have been many conflicts in the Middle East over the last two decades, none of which have resulted in a large-scale regional war and none of which have involved any major powers fighting against each other. It is easy to dismiss Syria and claim it’s simply another brushfire in an area which has a lot of room to burn and in which instability has been rife. Yet, it's also important to wonder when one of these small fires will bloom into a firestorm. How long before “isolated” conflicts collide with Western “vital” interests? Will we see Russian and American forces face off over Syria? Over some other nation? How will Israel respond, as they sit on their perch in the Golan? How will Iran, one of Syria's Middle Eastern supporters, react to intervention or aggression?
There are, of course, many differences between the situation before the outbreak of war in 1914 and the one we are witnessing before us. We’re not saying there is some kind of formula that will bring the world to the brink or war, nor are we saying that a war which reaches beyond the Middle East is some kind of inevitable development of our current geopolitics. Unlike the Great War, we have a set of international (and mostly impotent) bodies that observe current developments.
Yet, still there are also a number of similarities. The great powers in 1914 had the option not to enter a war that didn’t represent an existential threat to them. This is particularly debatable when it comes to Great Britain’s role in the Great War, as historians like Niall Ferguson and, in a more cogent way, William Mulligan have argued.
The same might be said for the West today. To what degree is Assad’s regime actually a threat to American freedom and democracy? If the US and British governments don’t intervene in Syria, what will the consequences be? On all counts, Syria represents no existential threat to the West, and US policy makers have generally known that since Hafiz al-Assad died in 2000 and his son, Bashar, filled his shoes shortly thereafter. Incredible corruption, myriad socio-cultural tensions, and rampant unemployment have plagued the country for decades. More disconcerting for the West, and even more so for Israel, is Syria’s control (or at least influence) of Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon. However, as far as Israel is concerned, the devil they know in Damascus is better than a devil they don’t know. For that reason, Bashar al-Assad appeals to Israel, as he has shown a much more calculated approach to the Golan and Israel in general. In our opinion, Israel would be much more anxious to see a new regime, whose political strikes are varied and who may or may not be influenced by Islamists who denounce Israel’s existence outright. In this way, there are significant reasons to remain out of the conflict in Syria. (After all, the West has picked and chosen where they will intervene throughout the Arab Spring. Why consider Syria when no one seemed to care about similar violence in Yemen or Bahrain?)
Equally clear is how little we can understand what is going on behind the scenes as the G20 meets and discusses the Syria situation. It is easy to sympathize with those facing the beginning of the First World War without any understanding of what was to come. In 2013, we have no access to government documents or diplomatic messages. We don't know why the Americans and the British are so determined to invade Syria after the usage of chemical weapons, but idle while thousands of civilians and rebels were dying just days before news that chemical agents were deployed. Or if Russia is bluffing that American action will be considered an “aggressive act”? We simply don't know the answers to these questions, though future historians will hopefully be able to examine the primary documents which are currently secret and confidential.