At the start of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, I wrote “The danger of accidental conflagration is high, and the choice of possible flash points is wide.”
Now that one of those points has actually flashed, I feel no pride in having been vindicated. I feel fear.
No one in his right mind wants the world to end this side of the Second Coming, either with a bang or with a whimper. I don’t know about the whimper, but the bang is terrifyingly close.
Historical parallels are defying Euclid and vindicating Lobachevsky by converging at a point where a world war becomes possible, if not yet probable.
For Syria circa 2015 read Serbia circa 1914; for the Middle East now read the Balkans then, for the First World War read… something no one wants to read.
Then too the potential area of conflict was only the stage, not the drama. The drama involved a clash of some real but mostly trumped-up interests seeking resolution in a conflict of some sort. A cataclysm effectively ending our civilisation wasn’t of course planned. But it was risked.
In the game of Russian roulette played in today’s Middle East the revolver’s cylinder still has a few rounds missing, but there’s already more than one in. And the risk of discharge is edging towards certainty.
In another parallel development, for the first time since the Korean War a Nato air force has downed a Russian warplane. Then, 60-odd years ago, only Stalin’s realisation that Russia was badly outgunned prevented a major war.
Stalin vacillated. He let his generals talk him out of using Russia’s first short-range missiles to fire at Gen. MacArthur’s fleet approaching Inchon.
The generals explained that such an act would trigger a full-scale nuclear attack on Russia herself, something that the country’s AA defences would be unable to ward off, and Stalin listened to reason. When he was no longer capable of doing so, he conveniently died.
Today’s situation closely resembles those two. Whether a world war will be unleashed, as in 1914, or averted, as in the early 50s, is anybody’s guess.
Newspapers and social media are full of regrets over Turkey’s ‘ill-considered’ action, while the Russians are repeating the usual lies, this time about their aircraft not having violated Turkey’s air space.
It did, and the Turks acted in full compliance with international law. They issued several warnings and, when they weren’t heeded, opened fire.
Most commentators bemoan that fact, saying that a single bomber was no threat to Turkey’s sovereignty. That may be true, but it’s also irrelevant.
A serious country can’t tolerate foreign incursions into her territory, for doing so would open the door for further violations. When those escalate, sovereignty may somehow fade away, replaced by submissiveness and ultimately enslavement.
Having said that, if, say, a Dutch plane strayed into Britain’s territory for a few seconds, I doubt RAF Tornadoes would shoot to kill. The capital of goodwill between the two countries is of too long a standing, 300 years plus, which would entitle the Dutch pilots to three centuries’ worth of the benefit of the doubt.
The Turks don’t feel about the Russians the same way, for all the footsies played by Putin and Erdoğan over the last couple of years. There was no capital of goodwill being built during that period. There were attempts by two wily politicians to pull a fast one on each other.
As you travel the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea, you’ll see old cannon pointing in the same direction, towards danger, towards Russia. This is a reminder that, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, the two countries fought 12 wars.
Russia won most of them, having suffered only two defeats, in 1712 and 1856, in the Crimean War, when Turkey had a little help from her friends. But in spite of all her victories Russia never won the strategic imperial prize she coveted and still covets: access to the Mediterranean through the Turkish Straits.
This is the perennial aim of Russia’s policy towards Turkey, which can only be achieved by turning the country into a Russian dominion. However sunny the relations between the two countries may appear to outsiders, the Turks know and fear this Russian craving – a fear much strengthened by the genetic memory of blood spilled over the centuries.
They too see parallels, which is bound to make then a bit trigger-happy when Russian planes barge into their air space – especially when these planes are bombing Turkmen villages inhabited by the Turks’ ethnic brothers.
Nato is duty-bound to support and defend its members, and Obama had to make a statement to that effect. Does Putin detect cold resolve behind that statement or only hot air? The answer to that question may well determine whether or not we find ourselves in a world war.
One wonders if Bush and Blair still think it was a good idea to laser-guide democracy to the Middle East back in 2003. As their British neocon fan told me at the time, sometimes it’s good to poke a hornets’ nest.
No doubt. As long as we don’t all die from the ensuing stings.