Syria is the new Bosnia and Houla is the new Srebrenica. This is the fashionable conceit of journalists, think-tankers and opinion makers of various stripes after last week’s grotesque house-to-house execution of 49 children, among others, in the Syrian town.
The idea is simple enough: Bosnia descended into war in 1992, but it took three years before the massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica finally triggered a chain of events that led to Western intervention. Houla, the thinking goes, should now do the same for Syria.
But as someone who reported from Srebrenica, entered Kabul in the hours after the Taliban fled Afghanistan’s capital in 2001, and watched Saddam’s statue fall in Baghdad, I find the idea absurd that Syria can be seen through the lens of former Yugoslavia.
Even if things are as bad in Syria today as they were at times during the war in Bosnia, the geopolitical contexts are so utterly different that drawing conclusions from the Balkans for conflicts in the Middle East risks producing the wrong answers. If anything, Syria has the potential to become a new Iraq, and we should look for any lessons there.
It’s a truism that generals prepare to fight the last war, and today this thinking has been institutionalized. Governments set up post-conflict units dedicated to “lessons learned.” So, when it comes to international interventions of one sort or another, each generation looks to the last case for pointers on what to do about the next. In the post-Cold War period, Bosnia lies at the beginning of this daisy chain.
As the newly declared Bosnian state collapsed into war in 1992, there were endless arguments about what to do. Many people now thinking about Syria have either forgotten or aren’t aware that the dispute over Bosnia pitted the U.S. against its European allies, and not just Russia. The U.S. wanted military action, while many Europeans did not.
We need not rehash the rights and wrongs of these quarrels. The upshot was that when Srebrenica finally began to tip the scales in favor of military intervention in 1995, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization took serious action, the war was over within weeks. A peace agreement was forged and 60,000 peacekeepers flooded in to secure the deal.
But note these vital differences with Syria: After more than three years of war, all parties to the conflict in Bosnia were exhausted, and as part of the Dayton Accords that ended the war, even Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic agreed that foreign troops should occupy the country. As a result, not a single peacekeeper was harmed.
So when war broke out in Kosovo in 1998, political leaders concluded -- and I acknowledge simplifying here -- that the lesson of Bosnia was that a few days of bombing were enough to bring the Serbs to heel. It was almost a disaster. Western policy makers said that the conflict would be brief, so Milosevic decided that he could sit tight and achieve many of his objectives. The result was a 78-day-long bombing campaign that appeared to be failing as it dragged on.
The stalemate in Kosovo ended only after NATO leaders started to talk about a land invasion. Russia, unwilling and unable to help the Serbs resist, suddenly became part of the solution and not -- as in Syria today -- part of the problem. Milosevic caved. When American, U.K. and other troops entered Kosovo in June 1999, the province’s Muslim Albanians greeted them as liberators. Today a statue of Bill Clinton stands in the capital Pristina and almost all Albanians remain fanatically pro-American.
Serbs and Taliban
On to 2001: If air strikes had worked in Kosovo, then surely a similar combination of airpower and friendly local allies would do the trick for Afghanistan. That was right, until it went wrong. Dislodging the Taliban from Kabul was easy, but unlike the Serbian forces that pulled out of Kosovo, the Taliban simply retreated to later fight back, in time-honored Afghan fashion. Now, U.S.-led forces, like the Soviets and imperial British before them, are looking for an Afghan exit.
By 2003, that failure had not yet become apparent, so the lessons of Bosnia-Kosovo-Afghanistan were applied to Iraq, albeit this time with the addition of a full-scale land invasion. As it turned out, the lessons of the Balkans did not apply in Mesopotamia. The vast majority of Iraqis were neither pleased to see U.S. troops, nor grateful to be liberated by them. Many, such as Iraq’s Christians, were rightly fearful of what the end of Saddam Hussein’s repressive secular regime would mean for them.
And then came Libya. The lesson learned from Iraq was that Western intervention with boots on the ground had led to resistance and civil war, engendering blanket hostility to the West in Arab and Muslim societies. The war also cost the lives of thousands of U.S. troops and several trillion dollars of U.S. taxpayer money. So, Muammar Qaddafi would be removed with support from the air and no visible troops on the ground, Kosovo-style. For now, Libya is still counted a success, but the country is awash in weapons and the situation is, to say the least, fluid.
One can debate how successful the Balkan interventions were and what sort of societies we have in Bosnia and Kosovo today. But a lot of people are alive who would have died if NATO had not acted. The Kosovo intervention also scotched the possibility of the conflict spreading to Macedonia and Albania and maybe sucking in others.
None of this can be said for the interventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. In Libya, more people might have died in a Qaddafi crackdown, but we will never know. Yet as a consequence of arms and Tuareg fighters flooding out of Libya after Qaddafi’s defeat, Mali -- one of Africa’s model democracies -- has effectively been chopped in two. A military junta rules the South, and Islamist guerrillas the North.
These outcomes are something we should consider when thinking about Syria. As with real estate, what matters is location, location, location. Bosnia and Kosovo are in Europe, while Syria is at the heart of the Middle East, so Balkan lessons don’t apply.
This isn’t an argument for doing nothing, but a plea to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions and doing the wrong thing. If you are still unconvinced, then try to imagine this: A statue to George W. Bush in central Baghdad, and one to Barack Obama in Damascus after U.S. airstrikes there, erected by grateful, pro-American Iraqis and Syrians. It’s hard to do.
(Tim Judah is an author and journalist. He writes about foreign affairs and covers the Balkans for the Economist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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