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Chemical Wonders

Joost Hiltermann, London Review of Books  |   4 Feb 2016

Predicting what will start a war, and when, is an unrewarding business. Long-term trends (‘causes’) are often clear enough, but not the proximate causes, or triggers. We can assess the comparative significance of competition for resources, hunger for power, the nature of political systems, the psychology of leaders. What precipitates a conflict, though, may be a sudden, unforeseen event: an accident, misreading or miscalculation, or a temperamental leader’s flash of hubris. Often, of course, it is a combination of such things. Yet there is nothing inevitable about the outbreak of conflict. (Bear in mind when I say this that I work for an NGO that operates on the premise that conflicts can be prevented.)

We face the same obstacles in analysing what will bring a war to an end, and how long it will take – or, to put it differently, what would persuade the warring parties to seek to reach peace. Take the war in Syria. Its participants blundered into it, responding to each provocation by their adversaries with an escalation of their own, so that gradually a local popular protest turned into a civil war wrapped up in a regional power struggle folded into a confrontation between superpowers that so far has cost more than a quarter of a million lives and displaced almost 11 million Syrians – about half the population – within and outside the country’s borders. How will it end? How can it be ended, when the participants themselves show no sign of being ready to end it?

The Iran-Iraq War offers as useful a case study as any in how conflicts begin and are brought to an end.

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