Salon: Has World War III begun? Some world leaders and journalists seem to think so. For example, Jordan’s King Abdullah recently said at a news conference that “we are facing a Third World War against humanity,” and that we must “act fast to tackle the response to interconnected threats.” Similarly, Roger Cohen at the New York Times wrote a poignant article in which he draws a number of parallels between the Syrian war and the beginning of World War I. And last September, Pope Francis visited a military cemetery in Italy and warned that “perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.”
The idea that World War III has started isn’t crazy — although neither is it obviously true. The fact is that the Syrian conflict is an international tangle of competing interests and strange alliances. Russia and Iran, for example, both support the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Meanwhile, the U.S. supports the Kurds and Syrian rebels fighting against al-Assad’s forces. The U.S. is also leading a coalition of over 60 countries, and France recently started its own coalition to fight the Islamic State, as did Russia. Making matters even more complicated, Turkey is fighting against the Kurds, and the Syrian rebels are receiving additional help from Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf states.
These are just the state actors — there’s also a number of nonstate entities engaged in this conflict. For example, the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah is on the side of Syria, Russia, and Iran, while the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is fighting to topple Assad’s regime and replace it with an Islamic government. There have also been numerous Shia militia roaming around Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led preemptive invasion, including the Mahdi Army and the Promised Day Brigade. According to the former director of the CIA, David Petraeus, such militias constitute an even greater longterm threat to the region than the Islamic State.