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3 December 2015, Gateway House

Is this World War III?

The U.S.-led bombings on ISIS locations have France and the British as its partners. On the other hand is Russia -- targeting the Islamic State but with a primary aim of keeping Assad in power. Is this then World War III?

Fellow, International Security Studies Programme

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Is the world today in the vortex of World War III? Well, yes and no.

NO, because the U.S. and Russia, realise the dangers of the current unintended escalation. Therefore, the two have taken steps to pull themselves back from flashpoints to avoid any untoward incident.

To prove the point: look at Russia’s reaction to the downing of its fighter jet by Turkey on November 24. Typical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric, he described the incident as “a stab in Russia’s back by terrorists’ helpers”. He also made a personal attack on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by showing satellite images of oil trucks from IS in Syria being routed through Turkey. He vowed avenge and “tragic consequences” for Turkey. That rhetoric, however, was mainly for domestic consumption. In reality, Russia’s response has been to look for non-military penalties, such as imposing U.S.-style economic sanctions on Turkey and banning Russian tourists from travel to Turkey rather than pressing ahead with military options.

More importantly, for NATO, sanctity of Turkish airspace is not worth fighting Russia militarily for. Doing so would mean taking away the focus from the fight against IS which has gained notoriety for its ‘lone wolf’-type attacks in the Western world. In fact Russia’s military campaign in Syria via airstrikes is hurting IS. NATO won’t lose sight of that benefit, and will focus on a) better managing any tensions with Russia and b) on “de-conflicting” military operations in Syria.

Also the past two world wars arose primarily because of the colonial ambitions of the European countries and their attempts to preserve their hegemony. That era is long over. Moreover, the world is no longer polarised along the opposing military blocks — which is how the whole world was sucked into WW I and WW II.

Hence, the scenarios of World War III being upon us are far-fetched for now.

YES, because states abiding by the rules of the game and international politics are one thing, but behaviour of the non-state actors such as IS are a new and unresolved issue.

Some analysts like Canadian Tarek Fatah say that the IS, has already begun the fight towards the Armageddon or the final battle ‘against the infidels’. Many Western policy makers tend to dismiss this world view of the IS and its desire to create a Sunni ‘Caliphate’. But that’s the vision propelling the IS rank-and-file on the ground against its enemies. Look no further than the reported plans of the IS to carry out an attack in India which will provoke an apocalyptic confrontation with the rest of the world and bring on that long-awaited ‘final battle’ between the good and evil.

Fortunately for us and unfortunately for the IS, unlike the Crusades in medieval times, the ‘Ummah’ or the global Muslim community that it is banking upon to achieve this caliphate is riven with internal paradoxes. For example, the supposed protector of the ‘Holy land’, Saudi Arabia, is best friends with Israel, and many Muslims view the group itself as not representing broader Islam. This, combined with the military pressure brought upon by the US-NATO and Russian forces, is holding back the apocalypse, for now.

Today, there isn’t an on-going World War III. But there are enough gun-wielders who are eager to make it a reality tomorrow.

Sameer Patil is Fellow, National Security, Ethnic Conflict and Terrorism, at Gateway House.

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