Tens of thousands of deaths in a country that lies not too far southeast of us. An extremely complicated military conflict in which the most varied lines of interest converge. A United States president who is particularly reluctant to undertake new military engagements on the heels of an electoral campaign centered around domestic issues and a failed engagement in the Arab world. A despot who does not recognize the need to negotiate promptly and seriously.
European diplomacy and crisis management are disappointingly far from meeting their self-imposed goals. Political initiatives are failing before they have even been put in place. Long debates about the merits and dangers of an arms embargo. The US Secretary of State speaks of a "problem from hell" -- the hatred, he says, is almost unbelievable, but the US, faced with a very difficult situation, is "doing all we can to try to deal with that problem."
What sounds like a description of the Syrian conflict in the summer of 2013 is a fairly precise summary of the view of the war in Bosnia up until the summer of 1995. Yet most observers see the current Syrian conflict through a lens colored only by the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. These conflicts stand for Western hubris, for the insolubility of some religious and ethnic conflicts, for the danger of a "slippery slope," in which even a minor, short-term military engagement may end up lasting for years.
In other words, the great legacy of the past decade is that Afghanistan and Iraq are the dominant lessons for those advocating in favor of interventions. Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even went so far as to recommend that anyone who was considering sending American troops into that wider region should have his head examined.
But is that really the right lesson to draw from recent years -- to fundamentally rule out military action? Or is it rather that, due to a lack of political success in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have forgotten the lessons we had learned from the 1990s, particularly from the Balkan Wars? That conflict taught us that in certain circumstances it may be necessary to consider the limited use of military means in order to force a diplomatic solution -- and thus peace.
Apparently, the old saying that politicians and the military tend to fight the "last war" a second time, applies here as well. Impressions from most recent experiences are, after all, the freshest. However, it can also mean that we end up viewing the current crisis through the wrong filter. The situation and the development of the conflict in Syria are in many respects more reminiscent of Bosnia than Iraq or Afghanistan. And Bosnia continues to offer lessons that are more relevant today than ever.
All officials and policymakers involved are surely aware that the current policy being pursued by the West and the international community with regards to the Syrian conflict is completely insufficient and unacceptable. Appeals, sanctions, embargos, certain forms of support for the opposition, diplomatic offensives, and mediation attempts: In the end all that has been -- rather half-heartedly -- undertaken by external parties has failed in Syria, as it did in Bosnia prior to 1995.
A first key similarity between the two conflicts can be found in the (initial) inability to get the fighting parties together around a table in order to achieve a viable diplomatic solution. Just like Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, Syria's president Bashar al-Assad sees no obligation at present to negotiate seriously. In Bosnia, too, peace plans and blueprints ("Vance-Owen") were laid out in the early stages, but led to nothing because of the West's lack of willingness to implement them.
Threat of Force
The conclusion of the Dayton agreement, which finally ended the Bosnian war in 1995, was ultimately only possible because Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs, in the face of new realities, suddenly developed an interest in a negotiated solution after all; the Croatian side had made territorial gains and the NATO operation "Deliberate Force" had shown that the West was taking the matter seriously. In other words, the result negotiated in Dayton, which despite all its weaknesses was able to pave Bosnia-Herzegovina's way toward a future free of war, was only made possible by the threat (and limited use) of force.
This is also the decisive issue for Syria: Assad has apparently returned to a position of strength, and it is one from which his regime will never be ready to make the necessary concessions. As long as Assad is convinced that his situation could continue to improve over the course of the conflict, or that he could even resolve the war in his favor, he will continue the fight. The international community needs to change this calculation if it wants to reach a political solution.
Secondly, the debate about arms supplies in both cases revealed (reveals) the regime's structural advantage over the opposition. In the Balkans, Sarajevo long decried the arms embargo, which clearly played into Belgrade's and the Bosnian Serbs' hands. Similarly, the Syrian opposition is now trying to counteract the material supremacy of the Assad regime, which is being supplied by Moscow and Tehran and massively supported by Hezbollah. It is only a slight exaggeration to observe that the only ones who have hardly received any support at all are the moderates within the Syrian opposition. That these forces would wither is to be expected -- and herein lies the real tragedy of Western failure.
Thirdly, even in Bosnia, a solution was only possible on the basis of a common understanding between the US and Russia. Although the two countries were at odds where their respective Balkan policies were concerned, they had to find common ground on the way toward the Dayton agreement. The United States' and Russia's somewhat revived Syria initiative is thus appropriate and important. Only an American-Russian entente can lead to successful diplomacy as part of a necessary contact group.