Syria and The Great Filter

Posted on 2016 October 30



One of the problems with being a pessimist is that you can never celebrate when you are proven right. — Thomas Sowell

I once nearly made a bet with a friend that we’d suffer a terrible world war in the following ten years, a war that would kill nearly everyone. Then I thought: If I won, who would pay me?

In late 2016 we’re stumbling toward that world war, but most people are blissfully unaware of it. At least, they’re unaware in America, where we’re so preoccupied with mendacious presidential candidates, transgender bathrooms, and cat videos that we haven’t noticed U.S. and Russian fighter jets zooming past each other over Syria, their battle missions on conflicting courses. It’s only a matter of time before one or the other gets shot down. What then?

The Russian people are well aware of it, afraid the U.S. is planning to nuke them. Forty million of them participated recently in civil defense drills.

What the heck is going on?

Let’s wind the clock back a hundred years for some perspective. In June 1914 a teenage Serbian radical shot and killed the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian empire. A month later Austria declared war on Serbia, and Serbia promptly called on Russia to honor its defense agreement and come to Serbia’s aid. Russia did so, and Austria appealed to Germany to honor their mutual pact, which caused France and Britain to come to the defense of Russia, and then several other nations joined in, and in short order Europe had a splendid little war going. Everyone expected it to be over in about four weeks.

Four years later, 20 million people lay dead. Twenty-seven years after that, another 60 million people had been slaughtered in the follow-up conflict, World War II. An enormous assemblage of military alliances were unleashed catastrophically, leading to terrible bloodshed, recriminations, economic disasters, and even more carnage … all of it triggered by one teenage guy with a gun.

Fast-forward to the 21st century: Europe’s NATO forces are installed in countries bordering Russia. European agents (with, possibly, help from the U.S.) suborn a coup in Ukraine that replaces the Moscow-friendly president with one hostile to Russia. Russia fears that its long-time neighbor and breadbasket are about to be taken over by Eurocentric forces. Worried also that its Crimean naval bases — rented from Ukraine — could at any moment be blockaded, Russia moves quickly to take the peninsula and Ukraine’s eastern provinces. Europe and the U.S. respond with sanctions.

Then Russia’s client state in the Middle East, Syria, lately besieged by an armed rebellion, finds itself in the crosshairs of U.S. forces deployed, for some reason, in defense of the rebels. This deployment helps spawn ISIS, which then marches forth from Syria to invade Iraq, a client dependency of the U.S. At this point, Russia offers to help clean out ISIS, but in the process its military ends up on the opposite side against the U.S.


All it would take to launch a hot war between America and Russia would be one MIG jet shooting down an American jet, or vice versa. The U.S. would issue an ultimatum to Moscow; Russia would taunt back; NATO forces would be deployed in the Baltic and come into contact with Russian outposts; NATO would win easily, chasing after the Russians as they retreat into their homeland.

And Russia, fearing they’ve been right all along and America wants to destroy them, might launch a nuclear missile at the oncoming NATO troops. After all, they don’t want their country invaded for a third time in a century. Enough is enough, they’d say. When the retaliatory thermonuclear barrages finally stop a few days later, billions of humans would likely exist merely as piles of ash.

It’s almost better that Americans are distracted by more pressing matters (the Chicago Cubs in the World Series!) because, once aroused by news of a deadly confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces, our instinct to despise the old Soviet regime would kick in, and we’d pick up where we left off a quarter-century ago with our hatred of all things Russian. We’ll automatically support the president against those wicked Russkies because … wait a minute, why are we in this? Oh, right, it’s because the president needed to prove he’s not a milquetoast in Syria, and also because he wants to see the Muslim world rise up in democratic revolutions.

Well, that’s charming, but are these really important American interests? They’re more like the president’s private preferences. (It’s not the first time this has happened. Please refer to the 2003 Iraq War for a comparable example.) No matter: we’ll risk, automatically and angrily, all of our lives because it’s our country, dammit. It’ll be moronic, and there’ll be no stopping it.

The stupidest thing about all this is that our interests and Russia’s are aligned in the long term. We want them to have a naval presence in the Black Sea to project power against upstart Islamist attackers from … I dunno … Iran? Or suppose another ISIS-like group rises up, gets hold of advanced missiles, and decides to strike to the north? Russia would stand in its way. Meanwhile Russia’s vast petroleum reserves help keep a lid on world oil prices.

Anyway, why should we care about a border dispute in Eastern Europe? Why, for that matter, should we concern ourselves with a civil war in a small country where we have no compelling national interest? Syria? Say what? We simply don’t have a dog in that fight.

(“But Syria threatens Israel!” Sure, and that’s not gonna change, no matter who’s in power there.)

Russia, on the other hand, most certainly does care, its long-term trade and political alliance with Syria threatened by the insurgency. Why not let the Russians spend their blood and treasure and take all the political heat? Maybe they can ease out President Assad, make assurances to the rebels, and quietly install a pliable member of Assad’s old regime, remodeled into a leader who “cares about the people”?

On the other hand, if Assad gets driven out by the rebels, whoever takes power will likely order a genocide against Syrian Christians. If our government has helped them, however inadvertently, to do that, there’ll never be an end to the condemnations.

Among cosmologists and exobiologists, there’s a notion called The Great Filter. It posits that life in our universe, after billions of years, might evolve into beings who just manage to acquire spacefaring technology but then suffer catastrophic events — asteroid impact, runaway climate, self-annihilation through war — and miss their chance to travel out into the galaxy on missions of exploration and colonization. The Great Filter could be a persistent obstacle to advanced civilizations everywhere among the stars, which perhaps goes toward explaining why we haven’t yet seen clear evidence of anyone else out there.

Humans are at the threshold of space travel, but we’re also still caught up in nationalism, xenophobia, and self-importance. We think rattling sabers in the nuclear age is fine and dandy. Our technology has greatly exceeded our maturity. We behave like a nine-year-old who gets hold of Dad’s booze, his gun, and his car keys. What could possibly go wrong?

Our own Great Filter looms ominously on the horizon. All it would take — as with the assassination of the Austrian archduke that triggered World Wars I and II — would be a single jet shot down over Syria.

At that point, you may want to kiss your cat-video-loving butt goodbye.


Posted in: Politics