Whilst many are eerily forecasting the possibility of a Third World War which would begin in Syria, there is another question that ought to be asked:
Has the Third World War already begun there?
Syria is the crucible in which all of the major world powers are fighting and each is fighting for a specific ideology in addition to the more utilitarian matters of control over territory and the economic enrichment which this implies.
The US is fighting and its ideology is regime chance/opposition to secular post-Nasser Arab states.
Turkey is fighting and its ideology is neo-Ottoman imperialism as well as anti-Kurdish nationalism.
Russia is fighting and its ideology is something of a misnomer. Russia fights alongside a traditional ally against international Islamic terrorist groups which threaten the wider world.
Russia has also taken a calculated stand against ‘regime change politics’, as a recent UN speech by Sergey Lavrov made clear.
In this sense Russia’s views are defined more by the ideologies it opposes than any which it might endorse.
Britain and France are fighting and their ideology is more or less the same as that of the US with a bit of Sykes-Picot nostalgia thrown into the mix.
Syria is fighting to preserve its government, its independence, its unity and its borders, and government and its ideology is Ba’athism and Arab nationalism.
Iraq is fighting to preserve its borders and for many in Baghdad to preserve the liberty of non-Sunni Muslims.
Iran is fighting a proxy battle against Saudi Arabia.
A Shia victory over the Saudi brand of Wahhabist Sunni Islam (represented by Al Qaeda and ISIS) has repercussions for the Iranians both at home and in the Arab world, which is why Iran is involved in an international conflict in a meaningful way for the first time since the Iran-Iraq war.
Hezbollah is fighting to aid fellow Arab Shia Muslims and also to send a message that they are a serious international force to be reckoned with.
Kurdish fighters are fighting for their traditional nationalist position, and against immediate regional threats.
China is quietly waiting and waiting, though it have affirmatively taken a side…that of Syria and Russia.
ISIS/Al Qaeda and their affiliates are fighting for the establishment of a regressive Islamic state, and by extrapolation for Saudi domination of the Arab world.
If the war in Syria is not yet a World War in terms of geographical scope or because Russia and the US have not yet had direct engagement, it is a World War in terms of the volume and geo-political weight of the countries involved.
The Second World War officially began on 3 September 1939 when Britain and France declared war on Germany after Germany invaded the Second Polish republic. But for eight months, there was no actual war fought between Germany and the Anglo-French alliance. It was called the ‘phoney war’ for this reason. Many thought it would quietly resolve itself quietly, but then of course Hitler invaded France and the Benelux countries in April 1940.
Far from a phoney war, the war in Syria is very real and it already has the characteristics of a semi-self-contained World War.
In this sense it’s not a matter of when a World War will start, it’s a pressing issue of when and how it can stop.