Syrian Hell: Why We Must Not Forget the Lessons from Bosnia

A Commentary by Wolfgang Ischinger

Has the world learned the lessons from the Balkans? Zoom
AFP

Has the world learned the lessons from the Balkans?

Opponents of an intervention in Syria like to point to the sobering experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq. But the Bosnian wars of the 1990s provide a more accurate model. As long as Assad feels he has the upper hand, he's not going to negotiate earnestly.

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.

Wrong Filter

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.

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1. Totally different issues, bad comparison!
das grauen 09/04/2013
Excuse me pls, Mr. Ischinger, but that's utter nonsense. As you yourself are obviously aware, there wasn't as much a civil war in Bosnia as rather an invasion by anohter country, Serbia! And that's why the military intervention of NATO was succesful, because peace could be established by seperating the parties (after a lot of "ethnical cleansing" had already happened). That's NOT possible in Syria, because, seriously, where shall the shiite minority that supports Assad go? To Iran, which is very much a different country? Or to Lebanon, where they will only increase the tensions? How to seperate Assads shiites from the several sunnite groups that fight the regime, really? Do you want to divide the small country, maybe? To believe that both groups can be forced to live peacefully in the same country again is just wishful thinking. It would take at least one million troops to police the 20 million Syrians and keep them from killing each other! But there's no "coalition of the willing" thaqt wants to engage in such a large scale operation there. So, sorry, but the big difference to the Bosnia war is that there's no reasonable strategy to enforce peace. And as long as that is so, the rest of the world should better stay out of that conflict. We simply don't have the means to end the bloodbath and could only make the situation worse.
2. the problem is the West has been intervening in Syria
jfl 09/04/2013
The problem is that the West and its compradors in the Gulf have been intervening in Syria. The West is already responsible for 100,000 dead Syrians and is looking now to finish the job ... to turn Syria into Iraq. That suits the Israelis and the USA. The only way the USA can return things to 'normal' is to reduce the world, once again, to what the USA views as 'normal' ... every other country destroyed by war and the US standing tall. Just like after WWI & WWII. You Europeans haven't started WWIII so the USA is doing so itself ... in the Islamic nations. And you, shameful imperialist agents that you are at Der Spiegel, are selling that song! Shame on you! Shame! Shame! Shame! Have you forgotten your own misadventures and the 1000 year reich ? Dead as a doornail 12 years later.
3. Thanks for nice article
TheOligarch.Com 09/04/2013
Nice attempt at a hellish problem. Note, what you have not attempted here is to find any kind of vision of the ultimate future or scenario analysis. For example, talking scenario analysis, you don't have any kind of these are the possible paths analysis, you are still working at the emotional compass level. I am afraid I can't help resolve the problem because I can't see a vision. It seems to me it's not just "a problem from from hell", its "a problem in hell". It seems to me these people have no faith, no love, no professionalism, they are the walking dead, they have no future. The Middle East is a tinder box, millions will die, the Arab Spring has just speeded up the process, it can't be stopped, they are totally overpopulated and devoid of civilization. Should poison gas be legal? Of course not, but in hell anything goes, the devil has no limits and as long as he can be contained it doesn't matter. That at least is how I think almost everyone feels, which is why they don't care and they don't want to get involved. Compared to Bosnia times have changed, now we know that not all human beings are really human beings, and that shocking realisation surely changes eveything.
4. optional
spon-facebook-10000234202 09/04/2013
This is a victory for rouge states like Iran, Syria and their backers Russia and China and a setback of Nato and US. If the US and the West will face much more serious trouble in coming months ,year in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambition and a possible return of Red empire and Persian empire.
5. This is not a European conflict
spon-facebook-592884103 09/04/2013
Although Mr Ischinger is correct in comparing the some of the religions and ethnic differences in Syria with Bosnia his conclusion is apples and oranges. Bosnia is a European country and Syria is in the Middle East and the outcome of any Western involvement will be dominated by this fact. Western military involvement in Bosnia was able to force parties to a negotiation table resulting in an agreement that divided the country into separate power domains with a common national government. A solution agreed to by both the ethnic groups and their supporters both European and Middle Eastern. This "solution" is one of two situations that can come out of the involvement of European and American powers in Syria. The first is a "hands off" military option. Weakening the central power of Assad and like in Libya, pave the way for a victory by mainly Sunni Islamist rebel forces. The outcome will be an Islamic state that will undoubtedly result in the ethnic cleansing of Christian, Alawites and Druz ethnic minorities in the country. The second is a "boots on the ground" military involvement "a la Balkans" as mentioned above. Followed by a forced ethnic separation of the country, either with a common national government like in Bosnia, or as separate states such as Kosovo. Did anyone say "Western Imperialism"? Such a move would be seen by the majority of the Islamic Middle East as a Christian Invasion to establish a Christian nation in the Middle East, or in the least as an example of Western colonialism. Leading to further animosity between the two cultural worlds. From this perspective any alternative from military involvement seems better.
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From IP Journal
  • This article originally appeared in the German online foreign policy magazine IP. The magazine appears in German as a bimonthly print magazine and in English as an online magazine for German and European foreign policy. IP is published by the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) think tank.
  • IP Journal

About Wolfgang Ischinger
  • DPA
    Wolfgang Ischinger, 66, is a German diplomat. Between 1998 and 2001, he served as a state secretary in Germany's Foreign Ministry. He then spent five years as the German ambassador to the United States, followed by three years as ambassador to the United Kingdom. He now serves as head of the Munich Security Conference.

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