war on the rocks

Syria and the Credible Commitments of World Powers

March 3, 2016

A variety of pundits and politicians have suggested that the chaos in Syria could lead to the next major global conflict. These predictions reached a fever pitch late last year when NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian jet and resumed again in recent weeks after Turkey warned Russia of “consequences” for continuing to violate its airspace, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev subsequently said that an expansion of the conflict could result in a new world war. Thankfully, these incidents have not yet resulted in World War III. It is no accident that this pessimistic and sometimes apocalyptic view of the conflict in Syria has flourished around the centennial anniversary of World War I, as it has become fashionable to compare today’s geopolitical landscape to that of 1914. Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe weighed in, claiming the world of today looks similar to the one that existed on the eve of the Great War. To be sure, a global conflict among the world’s major powers is probably more likely today than it has been for some time. But for all the convenient comparisons to Europe of 1914, the Syrian civil war is playing a role that more closely resembles the series of international crises that occurred in places like Morocco and Bosnia in the years prior to World War I. Those crises dramatically influenced the reputations of the European powers, eventually undermining their ability to commit to a peaceful resolution in 1914, long after the crises had ended. While the spark that launches the next world war is unlikely to occur in Syria, perceptions of the credibility of the major players are changing, and the consequences may not be evident for years, or even decades, to come.

In 1905, nearly 10 years before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Germany and France almost came to blows over what became known as the First Moroccan Crisis. Kaiser Wilhelm II landed in Morocco and declared Germany’s support for Moroccan sovereignty. France, which viewed this move as a major threat to its control of North Africa, threatened war against Germany and even mobilized its troops. Though Wilhelm subsequently backed down, he simultaneously cemented Germany’s reputation for aggression and undermined its credibility. Six years later, the Kaiser sought to change this image by deploying a gunship to Agadir in the Second Moroccan Crisis. The crisis resulted, in part, because of Germany’s perception that France had reneged on commitments made in the earlier crisis. Once again, however, Germany was forced to back down. In the meantime, Austria-Hungary declared its intent to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. Though Russia threatened war to prevent the annexation, it realized that its military was in no condition to fight Austria-Hungary and failed to follow through on the threat. As a result of these crises, commitments by the European powers to use force or abstain from the use of force became viewed as increasingly uncertain. By the time the Archduke was assassinated, the great powers of Europe faced a crisis of credibility and consequently struggled to commit to a peaceful resolution. In particular, Germany faced powerful incentives to launch a preemptive war because of the lingering commitment problems among the great powers, which had been exacerbated by years of international crises.

Scholars have argued that states’ inability to credibly commit to a course of action represents the most important cause of international conflict. When states are unable to make credible commitments, war is more likely and ongoing wars are more difficult to end. The conditions that led to war in August 1914 are far more likely when states’ threats to use force or their promises to refrain from using force are not credible. To be clear, the concept of credible commitment is not the same thing as deterrence, as it refers to the use of both forceful and non-forceful means. States can make credible commitments through a variety of mechanisms, but one of the most important ways is by establishing a ‘’precedent,’’ or a reputation, for upholding one’s commitments. Such reputations are developed over the long term through repeated interactions. Syria may be a worrisome development for the future of great power relations precisely because the sands of great power credibility and reputation seem to be shifting. In addition to Syria, Russian actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 have added to the Kremlin’s reputation for a willingness to use force, as well as its reputation for unpredictability. Meanwhile, after more than a decade of war in the Middle East, the relative restraint that the United States has shown in Syria has called into question its broader willingness to use force. Notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin credits himself with convincing the Obama administration to back down from its threat to attack the Syrian government in 2013.

The next world war may or may not start in Syria, but the conflict there is part of a much broader equation. Commentators have recently argued that a direct conflict between global powers is more likely to occur in a place like Estonia, but the seeds of any future conflict over Estonia are potentially being planted today in Raqqa and Aleppo. Further, the evolving reputations of the key players in Syria are observable well beyond the Middle East. Scholars have found that during international disputes, states frequently make decisions based on how their adversaries have behaved in the past in their relations with others states. Rest assured that the actions taken by Russia, the United States, and France in Syria are being closely watched by outsiders to the conflict, such as China and Japan. As a result, the Syrian conflict may have an outsized influence on seemingly unrelated issues in which credible commitments of world powers also play a key role. In other words, what happens in Syria may imperceptibly influence what ultimately happens in places like the South China Sea. If and when the world goes to war again, Syria may be a tragic and critical footnote.


Dr. Justin Conrad is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  He is also a reserve officer in the United States Navy.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Photo credit: kremlin.ru