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.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
After a second day of government shelling on the border town Ras al-Ayn in northern Syria, people flee into Turkey, as seen from the border town of Ceylanpinar, Nov. 13. Op-ed contributor Edward P. Haley says, 'President Obama’s re-election frees him from domestic political pressures' so 'the US, the EU, and Turkey must build a broad coalition, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan' to act in Syria. 'Acquiescence is sufficient, particularly from Russia and China, but also from some Arab states.'

The latest estimates put the number of dead in the Syria conflict at more than 36,000, with a million people internally displaced. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. A second day of government shelling of the Syrian border town Ras al-Ayn continues to drive refugees into Turkey.

The killing continues in large part because Russia, China, and the United States are deadlocked in the United Nations over intervention, the Syrian government is determined to destroy the rebels, and the rebels are equally committed to the destruction of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Britain and France have each expressed increasing support for the opposition, confirming a shift in their approach to the conflict. The Gulf Cooperation Council has announced formal recognition of the Syrian National Council, and Britain plans to meet with the opposition group later this week.

As policymakers in Europe, the US, the Gulf, Turkey, and the Arab League search for ways to resolve the conflict, they should consider what the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo have to teach about what can and cannot be achieved by outside intervention.

The past in the Balkans is hauntingly similar to the current situation in Syria. As in Bosnia and Kosovo, Syria’s ethnic groups lived together harmoniously for decades. In both cases, unexpected developments – the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the Balkans, and the momentum of the Arab Spring uprisings in Syria – triggered dissent. And in each region, repression and reprisal destroyed the opportunity for peaceful change.

Efforts to end the war in Bosnia took so long and were so hamstrung by divergent internal and external interests that the fighting continued for years and caused the deaths of 100,000 people, often in flagrant disregard of international efforts to halt the violence. The siege of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica are two among many war crimes. Eventually, after extensive NATO airstrikes, UN artillery barrages, and the arming of the Croatian and Bosnian forces, an international peacekeeping force was able to separate the combatants.

Peace of a sort came after a final conference at Dayton, Ohio in 1995. However, the bitterness sown by years of murderous assaults has prevented reconciliation. At least outside intervention stopped the killing. One of the most important factors in the calculus of Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croatians was their desire to join the European Union. The incentive of EU membership worked both to foster democracy and to bring to justice those most responsible for the murder of the innocent and unarmed.

Kosovo was in many ways a replay of the war in Bosnia, with tardy outside intervention after thousands had been killed and hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled for their lives. After a ceasefire in 1998 failed to hold, the Serbian government rejected the terms of the Rambouillet Accords, which called for restoration of Kosovo’s autonomy and the deployment of a NATO force of peacekeepers. In response to the Serbian refusal, NATO bombed Serbia for three months, and in June of that year, Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo. After the fighting ended, a NATO force entered the country.

Kosovo declared its independence 10 years later, and has been recognized by nearly 100 countries. As with the earlier conflict in Bosnia, the hatred stoked by the killing and by conflicting ethnic and religious differences continue to prevent reconciliation between Serbs and Kosovars. Again, however, the allure of membership in the EU weighed on the minds of Kosovars and Serbs and helped convince leaders on both sides to stop the killing. 

The lessons of the two murderous episodes in the Balkans hold clear import for Syria. Those lessons are:

• The killing won’t stop without outside intervention. In fact, the cruelty accelerates as barbarism spreads and moral and legal restraints are undermined.

• Agreement among key outside powers is crucial. Acquiescence from some of them is good enough. 

• Because of a reliance on air power, outside intervention never became a quagmire in the Balkans even though Serbian forces were heavily armed with modern weapons.

• Reconciliation is the work of decades or more, but its imperfections are not an argument to wait.

• Stopping the killing is aided by powerful financial and social incentives (like EU membership) independent of the differences between the warring parties.

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.

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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