Many decades have a war that defines them, a conflict that points to much broader truths about the era — and perhaps presages larger things to come.
For the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, the three-year fight between Fascists (helped by Nazi German) and Republicans (armed by the Soviet Union) pointed to the far larger global disaster to come. For the 1980s, the Soviet battle to control Afghanistan, a bloody mess of occupation and insurgency, helped bring forward the collapse of the Soviet Union and set the stage for 9/11 and modern Islamist militancy.
For the 1990s, you can take your pick of the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda or Democratic Republic of Congo. For the 2000s, it was Iraq — the ultimate demonstration of the “unipolar moment” and the limits, dangers and sheer short-livedness of America’s status as unchallenged global superpower.
We are, of course, little more than half way through the current decade. Already, however, it looks as though it has to be Syria’s civil war.
In pure human terms, the war dwarfs any other recent conflict. Estimates of the number of Syrian dead range from 270,000 to 470,000 people. The United Nations estimates up to 7.6 million Syrians are displaced within their own country, with up to 4 million fleeing their homeland. From its relatively small beginnings as a largely unarmed revolt, the Syrian conflict has now dragged in more than a half-dozen countries.
Its broader implications continue to grow by the month. While not the sole cause of Europe’s migrant crisis, Syrians make up a significant proportion — perhaps even the majority — of new arrivals on the continent. The sheer numbers are producing political strains that have already torn up the ideal of a “borderless” Europe and may yet wreck the entire European Union project.
Syria has exemplified what Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachmann calls a “zero-sum world.” From the beginning, rival regional powers — particularly Shi’ite Iran and Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia — approached the conflict with the assumption that neither side could afford to back down or compromise without letting the other win.
From that perspective, Syria is part of a larger regional confrontation that encompasses the war in Yemen, the long-term sectarian battle for control of Iraq and, of course, attempts to rein in Iran, in general, and its nuclear program, in particular.
Increasingly, though, the war in Syria has become part of the wider, potentially more dangerous confrontation between Western powers and Russia. That confrontation also goes back years — through Kosovo and the Balkans to the Cold War.
It also goes well beyond geopolitics to a fundamental disagreement over the limits of state power, the acceptable tools to restore order and the sustainability of authoritarian government. As I wrote in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entire domestic justification of his power comes down to the importance of maintaining a stable central government as a bulwark against instability and chaos, whatever brutality that might take.
In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has been a game changer. As in Ukraine in 2014, Moscow has proved itself willing to use a level of military force that the West never anticipated and, as yet, has no real strategy to counter. Nor, for now, has it shown the will or intent to do so.
If the invasion of Iraq showed a United States that saw few real restrictions to its power, Syria has demonstrated the opposite. Washington has continuously prevaricated over what to do about Syria and even now, with Russian action literally redrawing the battlefield, has little in the way of a coherent strategy.
Painting this simply as a tale of Western or U.S. presidential weakness misses the point, however. If Syria shows us anything, it is how complicated the 21st century has become and how few good choices it can leave Washington.
Of course, if the West had signaled more clearly in the Syrian uprising’s early days that it would do nothing and let Syrian President Bashar al-Assad slaughter his way back to stability, it might have fatally undermined the rebellion before it started. But this would also have left many in the West feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
Launching massive military strikes against Damascus following its 2013 use of chemical weapons might have helped the credibility of any future Western “red lines.” But they would also have further undermined what was left of the central government, an outcome now widely seen to have been an error when tried in Iraq and Libya.
The situation on the ground, meanwhile, is ever messier. As in several other recent wars – Iraq, Ukraine, Libya and Yemen — the national armed forces of Syria have become ever less important. Most of the recent fighting is down to relatively disparate militias with increasingly complex loyalties. Already, we have seen U.S.-backed Kurdish forces fighting other U.S.-backed groups, as well as in the growing conflict with Turkey, a U.S. ally.
The one area where the United States and its European allies have been willing to take action has been the fight against Islamic State. That seems reasonable: Of all the elements in the Syrian civil war, Islamic State is by far the most direct threat to Western interests, states and populations. Taking it on is a battle possibly and even likely to be won. Islamic State has already lost significant territory and finances.
That doesn’t, however, come close to providing clarity over what to do about the rest of Syria.
As international mediation and ceasefire talks stutter forward, global and regional powers have a choice.
For most of those involved, the truth is that there may still be much to be gained by fighting. Russia could keep up the pressure and win back more territory for Assad and possibly benefit closer to home if the war helped destabilize the European Union. The United States, for that matter, could finally step up and support opposition fighters, which could block any recovery for Assad and drag the Russian mission into a quagmire. Also, regional powers could throw more resources into the battle, something Saudi Arabia seemingly signaled with its talk of sending ground troops to fight Islamic State.
The alternative, though, is that all sides pull back and demonstrate a willingness to compromise. There are plenty of messy issues. The most obvious is the immediate future of Assad and those around him. What exactly the compromise turns out to be might probably be less important than whether or not there is one.
Based on the past few weeks, the signals are mixed, at best. Some local ceasefires have been brokered, though with limited but very real humanitarian benefits for those on the ground.
If ordinary Syrians come to believe the war might genuinely be over one day, they are more likely to stay in the region, which might spark a whole different collection of conflicts.
A deal over Syria would perhaps be the most positive sign that the world could overcome its myriad growing challenges and confrontations. Failing to do so, however, might point to even worse things to come.