In Shakespeare’s Henry V, which reaches its denouement with the victory of King Hal and the English “happy few” over the mighty French Army at Agincourt (the 600th anniversary of which was celebrated only a few days ago), the final scenes occur in a French palace. Henry meets with King Charles of France in order to make peace, specifically by marriage to Charles’ daughter Katharine which will see the English rights to France cemented by the glue of dynastic intermarriage. The Duke of Burgundy, the scion of another line of the French Royal family and technically a vassal of the French crown, is there to act as interlocutor for the peace negotiations due to his dukedom’s size and importance. Shakespeare writes for him a vivid speech filled with descriptive imagery; while a minor character, Burgundy conjures up, in a play which (itself admits) relies on imagination to set the scenery, a stark vision of a land and people sapped by conflict. After ruminating on the wastage of agriculture and the countryside’s bounty by weeds and a lack of hands to maintain it, Burgundy laments the state of France’s people:
“And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country;
But grow like savages,–as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood,–
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire
And every thing that seems unnatural.”
Burgundy’s lines are timeless, though perhaps, in a later industrialized and urbanized age, the image of fallow fields does not raise the same emotive force, especially where the specters of famine have been mostly extinguished or resigned in the western conscious to obscure conflicts in the Sahel and other faraway places. At least in the West, such residual devastation is seen more pertinently in the rubble of the great industrial centers of Europe and Asia that were sometimes literally bombed flat in the Second World War, and are more plainly visible in the scenes of the Syrian Civil War that have mostly featured the battle over cities like Homs, Aleppo, Dara, and Idlib. Yet, such wastage to livelihoods, and the social carryover of this despoil to the local people, and especially the children, remains extremely concerning.
The statistical probability and roots of terrorism and radicalism in a refugee world characterized by want and brutality are contested by academics, but it certainly does make fodder for a difficult kind of childhood and social development, and can create lasting scars and inter-communal rivalries that can prove fodder for violence and occasional mass atrocity. Afghanistan’s Taliban, many of whose initial fighters were displaced Pashtuns living in Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad, grew up in a world marked by uncertainty and a limitation of opportunity, with the main artery of educational opportunity through the rigidly-conservative Deobandi madrassahs. Likewise, for a whole generation of German farmers and townsmen in the main arteries of fighting during the Thirty Years War, the constant presence of foreign soldiers and the want induced by sustaining large armies on the land meant that a career in one of the military camps was the best route out of the uncertainty of being the perpetual victim of harassment, and bands of demobbed soldiers remained a threat to German commerce for several years after the cessation of hostilities. An exponential rise in extrajudicial violence, juvenile delinquency, and a variety of other social ills was noted in the aftermath of Allied liberation across Europe, particularly as young partisans and displaced persons took revenge on their oppressors and on collaborators.
Local authorities often proved incapable of delivering measured retribution or providing security, and in all cases it was only the existence and intervention of well-armed moderating forces that was able to stem (at least initially) the breakdown of society where institutions had been swept away, families separated and destroyed, and the centers of justice were in turmoil. Even with the occupational authorities after major wars, a fair amount of savagery continued outside the remit or the physical ability of authorities to contain it. The fear of such sustained brutality for populations has become keen, especially where devolved power and the capacity for violence opens an opportunity for greater destabilization of entire regions, and the revived consciousness of great power competition has made such internecine struggles increasingly alarming.
Hence, we hear, in Burgundy’s speech, the concerned voice of the world’s powers today. The underlying concerns are put more directly in the realpolitik analysis spoken by one of Jean Larteguy’s French Paratroopers in The Centurions “On this over-populated earth, where distance has been abolished, we can hardly afford an anarchy 600 million strong.” However, the altruism of Burgundy’s lines are historically bankrupt; Burgundian Dukes were willing to ally with the English against their French kinsmen for the aggrandizement of their increasingly militarized authority within France (under the reign of the mentally unstable King Charles), and it was under their supervision that Joan of Arc was given over to the English and the stake.
I’ve thought about this increasingly in regards to Syria. With Russia’s intervention and the dangerously high stakes of concurrent American, European, Turkish, Russian, Iranian, Saudi, and Syrian activities within the country, it now seems as if some mediation and external agreement must be made in order to prevent a clash, and to the further destabilization of the region from the weak state conditions that allowed foreign fighters on both sides to enter the conflict and for local ethnic and political interests to take precedence over the battle for pan-national destiny.
It does not take much for the international community to see Syria as a font of danger in the form of radical networks and the diffusion of weapons and training to forces capable of bringing their expertise in violence to other areas of the globe, nor does it take much to see that a whole generation of young Syrians, the hope for their country’s future, are being brought up to hate and fear their own countrymen, and in some instances to despise the very idea of a country at all. The danger is very real that a generation of Syrians may be lost, or, at the least, that many will struggle their entire lives with the destruction wrought by the war: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It is well past due for the conflict to end, and only a psychopath or a blind fanatic could hope for a better result out of a continuation of the current mess, save for those who see in the intervention of foreign powers the opportunity to cling to power or to gain it.
We confront a host of Burgundys, each lamenting the horror of the war and each with a narrower interest in the field of arms (and that includes the American one as well). Four years and hundreds of thousands dead have yet to close the conflict with anything resembling sure victory for any side (though Assad’s forces was arguably in great and steady peril until very recently). Instead the ulcer has simply bled on and infected the entirety of the region with ethnic and religious strife; at this point, the desire to control the violence might finally bring hardened international pressure on the local players. Such deconflicting in Bosnia-Herzegovina could only be accomplished with the agreement of international and regional powers, backed up with punitive airstrikes and enduring guarantees of international peacekeeping.
The baffling inconsistencies of American and Russian policy make this seem unlikely. In the same week, American Secretary of Defense Carter said America was not launching combat missions in Iraq, and then said American troops were likely to be in combat. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov claimed Russia was willing to support the Free Syrian Army with airstrikes, as elements of the Free Syrian Army was being bombed by Russian planes. The credibility of all the major international arbitrators is in serious doubt. It is also unclear how much guarantees for protection would do, given the coalition nature of the FSA (including Jihadist elements) and the destabilizing presence of ISIS in the region as both a source of chaotic terrorism and excuse for operations on the parts of all the major players (Russia and Turkey have both hit ISIS, but mostly their primary opposition and Kurdish opponents first and foremost).
Such flashpoints have in past been controlled by physically separating peoples, building walls, and dividing up nations with occupational zones and granting potentially volatile autonomy. Such geographic and demographic solutions will be, at best, born out of necessity and everyone will know it, and there are already fears that, as in Bosnia, the program of ethnic cleansing will be accelerated with this knowledge (allegations have already begun against the Kurds in Arab areas). What too could a divided Syria look like? Bosnia is, tragically, proving to be a bad model, with systemic economic problems and the threat of renewed violence from ethnic nationalists.
The final and more alarming question is that of self-determination for peoples mutually suspicious, under great stress, and yet not without some stake in a future where they might prosper. How can future Syrians (especially the Sunni opposition who support the FSA) accept an internationally-imposed peace as legitimate, save only through exhaustion and the desire for peace at any price? Can they trust the foreign armies or their own (especially given the mutual atrocities committed)? Even if they do, it is doubtful that it will be, without massive economic restoration and an avenue for those displaced persons and their children to realize national stability and emotional security, a Syria that can confidently reassert self-determination, beholden as some portion of it will be to every national agenda in the international settlement.