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The case for military intervention in Syria

Former US ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker argues that the West should not wait for a single mass atrocity before it intervenes in Syria, as it did in Bosnia. What is the magic number of deaths that will prompt the international community to act? We've already passed 9,000.

By Kurt Volker / April 24, 2012

UN observers speak with Syrian citizens during their visit to the pro-Syrian regime neighborhoods in Homs province on Monday April 23. Op-ed contributor and former US ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker writes that military intervention "is a difficult and dangerous course, surpassed only by the difficult and dangerous course we are already traveling."

Syrian news agency SANA/AP



President Obama was on the right track this week when he announced a new effort to monitor global hot spots and prevent mass atrocities before they happen.

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But what about daily atrocities unfolding now in Syria – where a UN-brokered cease-fire is growing weaker by the day and the world refrains from intervening to stop the violence?

In this case, a history lesson from the Bosnian War is worth remembering. On May 1-2, 1993, negotiators at a resort outside of Athens reached agreement on the “Vance-Owen peace plan” aimed at ending Bosnia’s civil war. The plan required Bosnian Serbs to stop shelling Sarajevo, where Bosnian Muslims were under a year-long siege. The catch: Western military force might be required to implement the cease-fire.

In 1993, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher began consultations with European allies to gauge their level of support for military force. But instead of assuring that the United States was prepared to lead the charge, he asked allies whether they were prepared to implement the plan, without committing the US either way. (“Leading from behind” is what one might call this today.)

Sensing the US was not prepared to lead implementation – President Clinton had won the election just six months earlier on the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid” – allies demurred.

Within a week, the Bosnian Serb parliament rejected the plan, and shelling resumed. The war raged for two more years, with the Bosnian enclaves of Gorazde and Zepa falling to ethnic Serb forces, their majority Bosniak populations forcibly expelled.

Then, in July 1995 in Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs murdered more 7,000 Bosniaks in one, systematic slaughter. It was at that point that the West finally acted. To his lasting credit, President Clinton then determined that the US would lead. NATO used air power to suppress Bosnian Serb attacks on Sarajevo, and within months had committed to military implementation of the Dayton peace accord, driven to conclusion by American über-diplomat Richard Holbrooke. By December 1995, some 60,000 NATO troops were en route to Bosnia to implement the peace plan, 20,000 of them American.


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