Andoni Lubaki/AP
A Free Syrian Army fighter feeds a cat in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, Jan. 6. Op-ed contributor Andrew Burt advocates for US intervention in the 2011-2012 Syrian uprising, now civil war. 'If a three-month bombing campaign could help defeat the [Bashar al-Assad] regime, deter Islamic extremists, and give the Syrian opposition a solid shot at democratic governance, the effort would be well worth the cost.'

To deter extremists in Syria, Obama must heed lessons of Kosovo intervention

As President Obama watches Islamic extremists gain power in the chaos of the Syrian uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime, he should consider the precedent of the US intervention in Kosovo – where extremists have been kept at bay and democracy is growing. 

See if you can identify this situation.

Thousands of civilians have died within the last year. Civil strife has turned into ethnic conflict and now civil war. And the international community is increasingly worried. The United States is boosting its military presence in the region, while at the same time providing the rebels with training and logistical support. “We want to develop a good relationship with them,” says the US State Department spokesman referring to the anti-government forces. Meanwhile, Russia vehemently warns the West not to intervene.

This may sound like a description of the 2011-2012 Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Actually, this was the scene of events leading up to the US military intervention in Kosovo in March of 1999. But it could just as easily depict the conflict in Syria today.

The Obama administration recently sent troops and is deploying Patriot defense to Turkey, which lies on Syria’s northern border. And it has provided logistical support and official recognition to the Syrian rebels. Meanwhile, the death toll from the conflict is mounting. The United Nations just raised its estimate: More than 60,000 Syrians have been killed so far, as many as five times the number of deaths in Kosovo the year of the US military intervention. Just as with Kosovo, Russia is warning against any form of western intervention.

And while President Obama weighs the options of intervening in Syria, as he is reportedly in the process of doing, he should consider these similarities. In doing so, he will find another reason to ramp up US support for the Syrian opposition, one that is not commonly associated with the Kosovo War: combating extremism.

I recently sat down with Petrit Selimi, the No. 2 official in Kosovo’s Department of Foreign Affairs, to get a better understanding of what happened in Kosovo’s fight for independence from Yugoslavia and the forces of Slobodan Milosevic. I wanted to understand how the conflict in Kosovo might parallel the current turmoil in Syria, and the role of extremism in both places. In particular, I wanted to know why Kosovo never became a significant platform for Islamic extremists, despite its heavily Muslim population and the prolonged period of conflict it endured – both well-known recipes for Islamic radicalism.

If anything, Kosovo has gone in the opposite direction: developing democratic institutions, facilitating economic reform, and even increasing the role of women in society. Of course, Kosovo’s democratic evolution hasn’t been without its problems. Complaints of corruption and inadequacy still plague the government there. But Kosovo has largely avoided the pitfalls of Islamic extremism.

Indeed, extremists actively attempted to develop a foothold throughout the conflict. Thousands arrived “trying to justify the conflict in Kosovo as some sort of religious or civil war,” Mr. Selimi says. Just as with foreign jihadists in Syria, they “were looking at Kosovo as a base not only to fight Serbs but also all of the so-called colonial or anti-Islamic powers.”

So how did Kosovo resist these extremists? The answer, according to Selimi, is American support – in particular, increased US cooperation with Kosovo’s rebels, the Kosovo Liberation Army. After NATO intervention, spurred by the refugee crisis as Kosovar Albanians fled Milosevic, the US reached out to support opposition groups. Some of those groups had previously been labeled as terrorists, but this official US support helped empower moderate elements within them and incentivize a progressive agenda.

“Since the Kosovo Liberation Army, the primary base for guerilla resistance, was aligned to the western agenda,” explains Selimi, “there was never an ability for extremists to obtain the type of belief and support of the population.”

Second, the US military intervention in the region itself played a major role in sidelining extremists. “The US was seen as the great ally of Kosovars and Albanians, so anybody who would come to Kosovo trying to spread anti-Americanism would have been shunned away,” says Selimi.

Had the US not intervened in Kosovo, however, the outcome would likely have been far worse. According to Selimi, “A lot of extremist groups here would have been able to gain a much stronger foothold banking on people’s frustration with a lack of response by the West and US.”

Kosovo is, of course, far from Syria, in both geography and in likeness. The histories, ethnic tensions, and composition of their opposition forces differ greatly. And no one, Kosovar or not, can definitively say what would have happened in the absence of a US and NATO intervention.

But the similarities between the two conflicts remain, especially when it comes to the dangers that a population, worn down by conflict and civil strife in the face of an oppressive regime, presents as an allure for extremist groups. Indeed, the rising influence of extremists in Syria is already topping the Obama administration’s agenda as a cause for deep concern.

And if the last decade teaches us anything, it is that these concerns are justified: Islamic extremists will use internal strife anywhere in the world to bolster their war against the West, from Pakistan to Yemen and Mali.

And so as Mr. Obama watches extremists gain power in Syria, with some groups drawing support from Al Qaeda itself, he would be wise to consider the precedent of the Kosovo intervention. If a three-month bombing campaign could help defeat the Assad regime, deter Islamic extremists, and give the Syrian opposition a solid shot at democratic governance, the effort would be well worth the cost.

If the US does intervene there as it did in Kosovo, the Syrian people might one day echo Selimi’s proud assertion that for the first time the future of Kosovo “is up to us.”

Andrew Burt, a former journalist and current student at Yale Law School, is writing a book about political extremism. Follow him on Twitter @AndBurt.

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