When foreign policy experts put their minds to ending the Syrian war, they often reach for the history books and the example of the treaties which ended religious conflicts in Europe in the 17th century. As Syrian peace talks are due to start in Geneva today, with few observers seeing a chance of a breakthrough, it is worth looking at how Europe brought an end to the Thirty Years War in 1648.
The mere mention of that long and bloody conflict is enough to spread alarm and despondency. Is the Arab world really set for a generation of warfare in its heartland? That certainly seems to be the feeling among the tens of thousands of Syrians who are trekking northward to Europe, having despaired of any chance of a speedy return to their homes.
To historians the 1648 Peace of Westphalia was a turning point in Europe’s ability to live with religious diversity. Though religious strife continued in many countries, it was an internal affair, not a cause for invasion and outside interference. The sovereignty of states to manage their own religious affairs was enshrined, paving the way for the creation of modern nation states with the peace kept by a balance of power.
There are some similarities between then and now. The Thirty Years War took place in the heart of Europe, inside the German states – Germany had yet to be unified – just as the focus of today’s war is Damascus, the “beating heart of Arabism”. Due to their strategic location, the German states invited outside intervention, and spread instability far beyond their borders.
The cause of the war was the Protestant reformation in Europe a century earlier, in which fundamentalist sects such as Lutheranism broke the monopoly of the Catholic Church and weakened the great powers. An echo of this can be seen in the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which put religion at the heart of politics of the wider Middle East and empowered the neglected Shia Muslim minorities of the Arab states.
As today, the Thirty Years War was not purely about religion. It was a set of interlocking political-religious struggles, with the contest for power sharpening and deepening religious differences. It was equally devastating: between 1618 and 1648, the German territories lost 40 per cent of their population, and there were huge tides of refugees.
But the key issue is how it was brought to an end.
Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state and a noted proponent of the parallels with the 17th century, offers a simple explanation. “The various Christian groups had been killing each other until they finally decided that they had to live together, but in separate units.” There was no clear winner or loser. The peace was based on “the necessity to come to an arrangement with each other, not on some sort of superior morality”.
There was no quick deal. Under the guidance of Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister to the king of France for 40 years and supreme diplomat of the era, it took five years to agree the peace treaties. France, not surprisingly, came out best, but the outcome was based on the interests of France, not of the Catholic powers.
The Cambridge historian Professor Brendan Simms highlights a key point about the Peace of Westphalia. While the treaties are usually seen as midwife at the birth of the modern sovereign state, in fact the arrangement worked because it was guaranteed by the big powers of the day, France and Sweden. Princes who violated the terms of the peace, for example by supporting their co-religionists in foreign states, could be deposed by the guarantors. So it was an arrangement of “conditional sovereignty”.
What lessons are there for today? The exhaustion with war cited by Dr Kissinger may be keenly felt by the Syrians, but is it enough to stop the fighting? To simplify matters, Saudi Arabia still sees Iranian expansionism as a threat which must be countered.
For their part, the Iranians see ISIL and other Sunni supremacist groups as a mortal threat to Shia communities throughout the Middle East. The argument over who set in motion this infernal spiral will continue. The point is not to adjudicate over who has the moral high ground but to agree that the spiral must end.
Only the most incurable optimist could argue that we have reached this point of exhaustion.
A more reasoned approach would be to look at the outcome of Iran’s elections next month, for a new majlis, or parliament, and the Assembly of Experts, the body that elects the Supreme Leader and which may choose the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for signs of Iran’s political path. But whatever the results, the likelihood is that the internal struggle for control of the Iranian state is not over yet.
There is also the issue of who would guarantee the new settlement.
The obvious contenders would be the US and Russia, if they can ever be made to agree.
But the modern Middle East, for all its instability, is not the same as the petty princely states of pre-unification Germany that could be pushed around by the big powers. Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would need to be full partners to any agreement, committed to the new balance of power.
And who would be the latter-day Cardinal Mazarin? Henry Kissinger, architect of the US opening to China – which ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union – may dream of such things, but at age 92 the position is open to others.
Global politics are now more complex than in 1970s and the ability of an American president and a crafty cardinal to remould the world – despite Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” – is a thing of the past.
But that does not mean that there is no chance of war exhaustion leading to a new balance of power. The point is to be ready for that moment.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter: @aphilps