On June 28. 1914 Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Franz Josef and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot to death along with his wife by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The archduke was in Sarajevo to inspect the imperial forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, territories only recently annexed from the Ottoman Empire. Serbian nationalists, enraged because they believed the area should have become part of newly independent Serbia, were determined to demonstrate their commitment and strike back in retaliation for this outrage.
The assassination set off a chain reaction. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia came to the defense of Serbia. Germany came to the defense of Austria-Hungary. The world was consumed by war. Before it was done this "Great War" would cause 41 million casualties. An entire generation of European young men would be lost. The seeds were sown for an even more terrible conflict to follow twenty years later.
Historians have debated the exact cause of this world war for a hundred years now. The blame has been placed on alliance systems, great power rivalries and imperial hubris. The truth is that in 1914 all Europe was a powder keg, waiting for a single spark to set off the inevitable explosion.
German imperial ambition, English commitment to preventing further German expansion, French resentment at an ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, Russian interest in acting as the protector of the Slavic people – all of these played a part.
While none of the great powers envisioned how a war would start or had any interest in a conflict on the scale that ensued, none of them acted to head it off either. They continued to trundle forward, acting tactically and reactively and ultimately proved powerless to prevent a tragedy on a scale never seen before in human history.
A hundred years on we are stumbling into the same kind of territory. This time, however, the fuse will be lit not in Sarajevo but in Syria.
Syria has become a battlefield in a multi-sided proxy war, which becomes more complicated and less predictable every day. What remains of Assad's oppressive regime fights to the death using chemical weapons and indiscriminate attacks on civilians as routine tactics. In support of this nightmarish dictatorship fight a disparate group of allies is united by their desire to counter the United States, destroy Israel and alter the strategic balance of power in the Middle East. This group includes Russian mercenaries, sophisticated Russian aircraft, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps operatives, thousands upon thousands of Shia fighters serving with Hezbollah and a long list of Hezbollah clones and remnants of the Syrian Army.
Aligned against these forces are multiple Syrian rebel forces, US, British and French troops and, when the mood strikes them, the Israelis, who reserve the right to attack when and where it suits them and then to return to sitting on the sidelines and awaiting the next provocation. Where all this is headed is unclear. What the objectives are of anyone other than Assad, who wishes to remain in power, are equally unclear.
This is an unsustainable situation. Sooner or later, and it is likely to be sooner, Russian and American troops are going to come into conflict, and it will be impossible for either side to look the other way. The fact that Putin already ignored the loss of several hundred Russian mercenaries in an engagement with US forces
earlier this year only means the clock is that much shorter. He already looked the other way once; he will not look away again.
A multitude of incidents could trigger a much wider conflict. The Israelis up until now have acted unilaterally to strike Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria with impunity. The discovery that an Iranian drone shot down over Israel a number of weeks ago was armed suggests the Iranians are already considering altering the current state of affairs and may strike back against Israel directly.
Somehow, some way, a spark is going to be struck, and a chain reaction is going to be ignited. Events are going to pile on top of events. Attacks are going to be responded to in kind on the ground at a pace which defies control. Pictures of the broken bodies of American, Russian, Iranian and Israelis soldiers and airmen are going to be flashed around the globe and splashed across every TV and computer screen. Before we even understand what is happening, we are going to be at war.
The great Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck, once famously declared that one day the great European War would start with "some damn foolish thing in the Balkans." He was right. This time, if we are not careful, the next great war will start in Syria.