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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Looking at Syria and Seeing Bosnia, Not Iraq

Video of President Obama’s remarks to reporters in Sweden on Wednesday in which he described the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a step across “a red line” that demands a response.

While opponents of President Obama’s plan to strike Syria invoke the cautionary tale of Iraq â€" where an American-led invasion was justified by intelligence claims about a Baathist leader’s chemical weapons stockpile that turned out to be flat wrong â€" some supporters of military intervention argue that there might be more to learn from another United States-led bombing campaign, the one that helped to end the brutal sectarian civil war in Bosnia in 1995.

In an essay for the German Council on Foreign Relations, Germany’s former ambassador to the United States, Wolfgang Ischinger, described some of the similarities between the two conflicts.

Tens of thousands of deaths in a country that lies not too far south-east of us. An extremely complicated military conflict in which the most varied lines of interest converge. A U.S. 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.

While Mr. Ischinger, who took part in the peace talks that ended the Bosnian war, acknowledges that there are differences, he also suggests that the use of force against Syrian government forces could help hasten the end of the war in much the same way that the NATO bombing of the Bosnian Serbs did following a massacre in Sarajevo in 1995.

Just like Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, 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.

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: From a position of strength, to which Assad has apparently returned somewhat, 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.

Given that the Obama administration is now represented at the United Nations by Samantha Power, who charted in excruciating detail the Clinton administration’s years of hesitant deliberation before that intervention in her book “A Problem From Hell,” Mr. Ischinger is unlikely to be the only advocate of humanitarian intervention to be considering what lessons Bosnia might hold for ending the Syrian civil war.

Part of a PBS documentary on the Clinton administration’s decision to intervene in the civil war in Bosnia in 1995.

Indeed, the BBC Europe editor, Gavin Hewitt, reported Wednesday that Mr. Obama’s allies in France also appeared to be at least hinting that military intervention could help force Mr. Assad to negotiate more seriously.

Still, not every close observer of the Bosnian war agrees that the parallel is exact or useful. Laura Silber, who was The Financial Times’s correspondent in the Balkans from 1990 to 1997, and an author of “The Death of Yugoslavia,” said Wednesday that airstrikes on Syria would be militarily similar “but completely unlike Bosnia” in an important way. In 1995, Ms. Silber wrote in an e-mail to The Lede, the team of American diplomats led by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and American intelligence officials “knew with a degree of certainty that the war had played out on the ground â€" i.e. that the Serbs could not mount a serious destabilizing counter attack, whereas in Syria the ramifications of intervention may be more uncertain.”

An excerpt from “The Death of Yugoslavia,” a BBC documentary based on the book of the same name, explaining the American-led military intervention in Bosnia in 1995.

Another observer who expressed skepticism about military intervention, the Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami, also mocked, in her Twitter commentary, the tendency of pundits to look for easy historical analogies.

A version of this post was also published in the “Crisis in Syria” section.