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Balkan conflicts hold clear lessons on intervention in Syria

As policymakers in Europe, the United States, the Gulf states, Turkey, and the Arab League search for ways to resolve the conflict in Syria, they should consider what the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo have to teach about outside intervention. The main lesson? Do it – to stop the killing.

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Intervention of course, is not an easy solution, nor is it one that is welcome in Washington, Brussels, Ankara, Moscow, or Beijing. The most encouraging thing one can say is that President Obama’s re-election frees him from domestic political pressures to a degree unknown in his first term. Taking advantage of this freedom, the US, the EU, and Turkey must build a broad coalition, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan, and then act together – immediately and decisively, with or without UN Security Council authorization.

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The decision to intervene recognizes that there is no other way to save tens of thousands of lives.  Acquiescence is sufficient, particularly from Russia and China, but also from some Arab states. This could take the form of public criticism and private acceptance of military action without specific UN authorization, which was the Russian position during the war in Kosovo. It could mean abstention in the Security Council, which was the Chinese position regarding the first Iraq war. 

Helping to stop the killing, and in the process winning a role in shaping post-war Syria, are powerful incentives for Egypt and Iraq to join rather than oppose the intervention. If they nonetheless decline to directly support it, their tacit acceptance would be an important contribution to the success of the operation.

An international force on the ground in Syria to keep order and prevent reprisals is essential. An end to the killing in Syria should be among the issues discussed at the meetings between the US and Iran scheduled for early next year. If Iran is willing to work with the US and its coalition partners to stop the killing in Syria, it should be invited to the final peace conference and assured that its interests will be carefully considered.

Finally, wealthy nations in the Middle East and elsewhere must establish a fund of billions of dollars dedicated to Syrian reconstruction and reconciliation. The fund should be constituted immediately and distribution made contingent on a halt to the fighting and a commitment from all Syrians to avoid reprisals and work together for justice and reconciliation. 

Edward P. Haley is director of the Center for the Study of Human Rights Leadership and W.M. Keck Foundation professor of international strategic studies at Claremont McKenna College.


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