As others have remarked, today is the 100th anniversary of the US’s entry into World War I. I recently began reading Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished. Gerwarth’s book focuses on how and why WW I never really ended, especially for those on the losing end of the war. Which led to almost 2 decades of civil wars, ethnic cleansing, revolutions, and acts of what we would now call terrorism. These events set the conditions for the rise of fascism, its racist offshoot of NAZIsm, and the spread of Bolshevism contributing to WW II.
I came across a reference to Gerwarth’s book in a post by Josh Marshall. Marshall’s referencing of The Vanquished spoke to me as I had just begun thinking through a report I’m working on in regard to how to set the conditions in Iraq and Syria to win the peace, not just the war, against ISIL. The President’s change of position in regard to Assad, including tonight’s limited strike on a Syrian military airfield, makes thinking of such things even more important.
Marshall highlighted one passage from Gerwarth’s book:
“Nazi Germany and its overtly exterminationist imperial project of the later 1930s and and early 1940s owed much to the logic of ethnic conflict and irredentism created by the Great War and the redrawing of borders in 1918-19.”
Marshall applied Gerwarth’s analysis to make this important point:
Cataclysmic and sustained violence is brutalizing and traumatizing to whole societies as much as it is to individuals. The victorious states at least had victory to justify what had happened. The defeated states not only lacked ‘victory’; the end of the conflict saw something approaching complete societal collapse. There was the collapse of states, recurrent revolutions, often followed by reaction and new rounds of violence. More than anything else there was a search to find some way to justify or create some value to justify the scale of loss. After a brief window of time where leaders tried to create democracies out of the collapsed states and thus become ‘victors’ against destroyed autocracies, the two most obvious channels were to build up cults of revenge or to strive to create new, ethnically pure states. In many cases, the two drives were combined.
One persistent theme of this story was that each ‘ethnicity’ had a state somewhere or was trying to create one that would vindicate and protect it and brutalize those communities which stood in the way of creating ethnically homogenous states. So Magyars were the brutalizers in one place and the brutalized in another – the same could be said for virtually every national group, albeit with the groups with new states generally having the whip hand. This story is most discussed in the arc of German history but Gerwarth places it in a broader, pan-European (at least all-East and Central European) context.
What connects WW I and today is that the US and its allies at the time failed to properly secure the peace at the end of WW I. The real strategic challenge facing the US led Coalition in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as the actions of the Assad government, is not how to conduct the fight. We are very good at this. With a lot of hard won knowledge accumulated over the past sixteen years. Rather the real strategic challenge is how do we, working by, with, and through our local partners set the conditions, as part of these campaigns, to win the peace and ensure that the people of Iraq and Syria post ISIL and of Syria post civil war have the opportunity and security to move forward in a peaceful manner. Rather than devolving once again into sectarian violence and/or civil war.
One of the most difficult pieces of the Syrian problem set is that no one in Syria on the ground, or among the exile Syrian groups involved with the Syrian Civil War, can articulate what happens after the Civil War ends. There is nothing even close to a consensus on who controls what. There is nothing even close to a consensus on who would replace Assad if he should go. There is nothing even close to a consensus on what to do if Assad doesn’t go. There is nothing even close to a consensus as to who gets to consider themselves Syrian or what that will even mean post Civil War. And there is almost no discussion about the on the ground reality that this is not simply Russian and Iranian backed Assad and the Alawite minority versus all the other Syrians. Assad has support from a cross section of Syrians, not just the Alawites. But Syriac Christians, Syrian Druze, those portions of the Syrian Sunni community that have benefited from his family’s rule and/or been coopted by the Assads through patronage. The Syrian Civil War, despite the best efforts of almost everyone, cannot simply be reduced to: Assad and the Alawites with the backing of Russia and Iran against everyone else. This is simply not true. To borrow Gerwath’s formulation, or Marshall’s interpretation of Gerwath: there are brutalizers and brutalized on each side of the Syrian Civil War. Breaking that dynamic, or, at least, working by, with, and through our local partners to set the conditions to do so, will be necessary to not just win the war, but to win and secure the peace.