Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: forced analogies and human rights (part 1 of 2)


By Chris Beall

With the recent escalation in Yemen between Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunni Arab coalition forces, journalists, commentators and policymakers have resurfaced a popular story to explain the latest wave of fighting in the Hadramaut. It goes something like this: whatever the particular circumstances of this individual conflict, what we’re really witnessing in the sectarian warfare across the contemporary Middle East is a theological realignment and reformation of Islam itself—a prolonged umbrella conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that resembles the scope and significance of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War.

Whatever its original source, this story has gained remarkable traction over the last few years. With the rapid ascent of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the virtual unraveling of Syria and Iraq along sectarian lines, commentators from a variety of backgrounds have deployed this narrative to explain the truly horrific bloodshed that has unleashed in the region. Whether one looks to the easing of Iranian sanctions or the implosion of the Arab Spring, 17th-century European history seems to be on everyone’s tongue. For the last three centuries, the Thirty Years’ War has never been more in vogue.


I’ll leave a detailed exegesis of this old European conflict to the historians. Essentially, the series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 were fueled by Catholic-Protestant tensions, resulting from unsustainable post-Reformation political arrangements throughout the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. What was planted as structural insufficiencies in the Peace of Augsburg sprouted into the violent fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire, and then, through the vying international interests of competing great thrones, blossomed into devastating decades-long warfare that was truly continental in scope. Although the protracted conflict saw its share of opportunism and side-swapping, the course of the internecine bloodshed basically played out along Christianity’s sectarian boundaries.

In today’s discussions, there are two important takeaways from the Thirty Years’ War. The first concerns the Peace of Westphalia, which brought an eventual end to hostilities, and is commonly cited as the birth of the modern nation-state international system. The idea, crudely, is that subjects no longer paid sometimes-competing allegiances to the throne and the clergy, but instead envisioned themselves as discrete social units (or “imagined communities”) paying undiluted loyalty to an authorized sovereign administering specified and legal territorial borders. On one hand, 30 years of shifting war fronts earns you territorial boundaries that reflect at least some demographic and socio-religious logic, while on the other hand, the passions and ferocity of religion itself are subdued and partially supplanted by nationalism.

The second important takeaway from Thirty Years’ War is how three decades of combat truly ravished the continent, killing an estimated eight million people. In Germany alone, one-fifth of the population was lost to violence, disease and starvation. The war also devastated Europe’s early 17th century economy, leading marauding armies to loot and prey on civilians, thereby inviting atrocities perpetuated by all sides of the conflict.


Considering the first lesson above, there are tempting reasons to want to believe that the current sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites is a development that mirrors the Thirty Years’ War. To do so endows an undercurrent of nationalist sacrifice to all of this violence— that whatever blood might get spilled in places like Iraq and Yemen, it’s all for the greater good as this long-troubled region earns its own Peace of Westphalia. At which point, of course, peace and stability will undoubtedly flourish.

However to accept this idea inherently implies an acceptance of that second above point as well, and this inseparability plays out in the commentary. For example, Richard Haass, in his July 2014 article for Project Syndicate: “Policymakers must recognize their limits,” Haass writes. “For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.” Such nonchalance is nothing short of chilling, when you consider that the “condition” Haass so casually mentions takes the form of mass executions, kidnappings, beheadings, sexual enslavement, sectarian cleansing and literally lighting people on fire in cages. It should also distress us that Haass is not exactly making these comments from his mother’s basement: he is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of America’s most accomplished diplomats and an active advisor of both Democrats and Republicans.

Many onlookers, including myself, have argued that military intervention—especially U.S. military intervention—in Syria and Iraq would do more harm than good. I, for one, still believe that. But to confuse this with the idea that today’s Middle East involves any less of a “problem to be solved,” and that both the US and the international community should sit idly by (with, out of all fairness to Haass, an occasional drone strike) and await some naturally occurring grand peace is an absurdity. A far more reasonable course of conduct would involve using diplomacy and American soft power with the intensity and resources we seemingly devote only to hard power—but such a policy argument is beyond my scope here.

My point is simply that to mindlessly compare today’s sectarian wars in the Middle East to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War both normalizes and practically endorses the rampant human rights abuses that such conflicts have wrought. While it is certainly tempting to accept this analogy, and keep our hands clean in the process, realize that to do so involves a political decision, and an impulse forged more by ideology than any facts on the ground. It’s one thing to connect dots and recognize patterns. Surely, there are commonalities between Sunni-Shia and Catholic-Protestant sectarianism, or any sectarianism, for that matter. But it’s something else entirely to enslave our thinking to our own forced analogies, out of nothing but the desire for heuristic simplicity and cookie-cutter interpretive models. Recognize also that when we allow such limited thinking to bleed into our policymaking (and considering the comments of both Haass and Leon Panetta, I think that we do), there will be monstrous consequences for human rights in the region.

In the second part of this series on the Thirty Years’ War narrative and the Middle East, I’ll look at more useful interpretive models to analyze the recent conflicts.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Palamedes Palamedesz/Public Domain

Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

5 thoughts on “The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: forced analogies and human rights (part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Who’s Fighting Who? -The Syrian Civil War | explain|reveal

  2. Pingback: The Syrian Conflict Explained | thequagmireblog

  3. You’ve set up a strawman argument. If you read Haas’s article, he does not state we sit on the sidelines. He outlines a series of activities, some of them aggressive in both the soft and hard power realms. He does not argue nonchalance – far from it. His argument is more about controlling expectations of what can be accomplished, given the multiple civil wars, the blurring of the religious and the secular, the numerous authoritarian regimes that lack legitimacy, an emerging region-wide ethno-religious fight between Sunni and Shia sects, and the long-standing grievances of those without power (the downtrodden and poor) now having a chance to exert some power through fighting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with fink. It really does seem that you either didn’t carefull read Haas’s article or miss the point. He is not suggesting nonchalance, but rather imploring leaders to recognize the limits of their power and focus their energy on the most important issues of this crisis, like minimizing nuclear proliferation and providing aid to countries accepting enormous amounts of refugees. Give recent history (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya to an extent), recognizing the limits of power seems like fairly sober advice.

    “What this calls for, above all, is prevention of nuclear proliferation (beginning with Iran), whether through diplomacy and sanctions, or, if need be, through sabotage and military attacks. The alternative – a Middle East in which several governments and, through them, militias and terrorist groups have access to nuclear weapons and materials – is too horrific to contemplate.

    Steps that reduce global dependence on the region’s energy supplies (including improvements in fuel efficiency and development of alternative sources) also make great sense. Economic assistance should go simultaneously to Jordan and Lebanon to help them cope with the flood of refugees. Democracy promotion in Turkey and Egypt should focus on strengthening civil society and creating robust constitutions that diffuse power.”

    He also specifically calls for the:
    — The acceptance of a dissolving Iraqi state and support of what he thinks is the inevitable emergence of a Kurdistan of some sort
    — A persistent and seemingly unending counter-terrorist policy in the region


  5. Thank you both for your comments. You both raise intelligent, important criticisms that I would like to address. Do realize that I do so only as an individual author of the above article, and that I am not speaking on behalf of nor representing Rights Wire in any capacity.

    First, I completely agree with the need to control expectations regarding US-MENA policy, and believe such prudence has been seriously lacking at the level of US policymaking for the past 15 years. My main concern with the Haass piece is not that he’s calling for some isolationist US retreat from the Middle East (as you both point out, he isn’t), but rather that Haass’ vision for our ongoing presence there is rife with unproductive self-defeatism, which I believe stems from an ahistorical, apolitical diagnosis of the region’s problems today. Considering the stakes of Syria, Yemen, et al., I believe this limited perspective also has major negative human rights implications, whether we like it or not.

    As I argue in the second half of this article (see: https://rightswireblog.org/2015/05/21/the-middle-east-is-not-undergoing-a-thirty-years-war-alternative-lenses-imperialism-and-colonialism-part-2-of-2/ ), there is nothing inevitable about the current sectarian tensions that are flaring up throughout the whole region. While Haass (and others) couch these conflicts in exclusively religious terminology (not unlike, say, Ayatollah Khamenei), I think it important to acknowledge the limited role religion is actually playing there. Yes, the sectarian lines are hugely important when it comes to mass mobilization and publicly inflaming these tensions, but the root of these problems is almost entirely political: between two contemporary nation-states pursuing worldly and concrete political interests. Beyond the centuries of relative Sunni-Shi’a peace noted by Shireen Hunter in that second half of my article, we should also note Iran’s sizable trade activities in the UAE, Tehran’s support for Sunni movements in Palestine, and so on. Even in the Middle East, politics trumps religion at the state level. But these nuances get erased when you bulldoze them with big sloppy allusions to the Thirty Years’ War.

    Perhaps nonchalance is too strong a word. But by refocusing US efforts on limited reactive measures centered around containment, non-proliferation, and counter-terrorism (which are all, of course, very important), I fear Haass and other top policymakers are dangerously overlooking very attainable proactive measures that the US could take to cool things. Example: Nimr al-Nimr was provocatively sentenced to death by the House of Saud last October. He was beheaded just two days ago, with the KSA knowing full well what impact this would have on the region. To me, the window between Oct. 15 and Jan. 2 represents a major US foreign policy failure, considering the leverage we *should* have over Saudi Arabia, were we willing to actually use it. It seems to me that the energy it would have taken to prevent this pales in comparison to the energy we’ll end up expending on counter-terrorism and so on, as this episode causes conflicts in Syria and Yemen to become further entrenched.

    In fact, we’ll be exhausting ourselves over (inherently imperfect) reactive measures from now until the end of time, unless we honestly address the root of these tensions and take steps toward curbing the instability that breeds them. Normatively, that burden shouldn’t fall on the US alone, but we have a direct interest in using what leverage we do have to mitigate these conflicts as opposed to containing them. That urgency is rendered invisible when our approach begins from the position of inevitable sectarianism, as that of the Thirty Years’ war.

    Also: as much as I might personally sympathize with the Kurdish right to self-determination, unraveling Sykes-Picot in a manner that pisses off every other party involved doesn’t strike me as particularly constructive while the region is burning. But that’s another matter entirely.

    Thanks again for the comments!


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