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The military option is still on the table as the atrocities in Syria continue. But what is the best template for intervention? For all its successes, the example of Bosnia in the mid-1990s is not one of them.
14 March 2012 - Syria is not the new Libya. But it does seem to be becoming the new Bosnia - at least, it would appear so in some of the solutions to the ongoing violence being suggested, from the establishment of safe havens to the arming of rebels. Yet we must be careful not to cherry-pick solutions from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. For, selected without due regard to their wider context, we in fact risk making the same sorts of mistakes that culminated in the tragedy of Srebrenica.
There is a predominant narrative that it was Western airstrikes that led to Bosnian Serb collapse that year - a collapse that meant, in the words of Richard Holbrooke in To End a War, 'the map negotiation was happening on the ground'. He was mostly right, but what is often forgotten is that he was also referring to the massive conventional campaign waged by Croatia and the Muslim-Croat Federation.
In the aftermath of Srebrenica, attention turned to the Bihac pocket in the northwest of Bosnia, further surrounded to the north and west by the Croatian-Serb occupied territory of Krajina. Another massacre beckoned, until the American-trained Croatian army swept through Serb territory in operations Flash and Storm in summer 1995. The breakaway Croatian Serb statelet was vanquished: more importantly, the northern flank of the Bosnian Serbs was unhinged. Bihac was relieved (though at significant civilian cost as a hundred thousand Serb refugees fled Croatian territory, with thousands still to this day yet to return).
At the same time, a reinvigorated Bosniak and Croat Federation army was seizing this offensive momentum and began taking swaths of territory - helped, it is true, by NATO airstrikes that functioned in essence as close air support. Croatian Army regulars crossed into Bosnian territory to assist in these offensives. The gains that the Bosnian Serb military had made in the early days of the way quickly vanished, and a strategic rout threatened. Milosevic, leader of Serbia-proper, was concerned enough by this collapse to elbow off the negotiating table Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb breakaway state.
Not so Safe Havens
But before this came the safe havens: and it is ironic to hear the same calls for safe havens being made now, when they were such a discredited concept in 1995 that, four years later in Kosovo, the West did not bother to declare anything other than a general military campaign against Milosevic's forces. For while a safe haven is appealing in theory, it is in practice an idea fraught with peril. Safe havens must be credible: if they can be starved out, shelled or indeed overrun, they are worth little and can in the worst case serve only as hellish, glorified concentration camps.
The threat of air strikes might make them credible. But if the Assad regime calls the bluff and attacks safe havens regardless, what then? The intervening powers will be compelled to up the stakes by not only increasing the physical resources committed, but also expanding the mandate of their operation.
Fine in theory, perhaps, allowing a graduated response to halt the atrocities. But what will Russia and China permit? They know from Libya what the thin end of the wedge means with intervention. And what military power is keen to commit meaningful resources to a possibly unilateral, open-ended campaign in the heart of the Middle East - and next to Israel?
Train and Equip - But Whom?
There is view that in Syria, arming rebels would be a better option. On the face of it, Bosnia offers a useful parallel: only when the Bosniaks and Croats were armed and trained could they reverse the territorial losses of 1992 and create the conditions for the Dayton Agreement. Indeed, the Bosniaks only signed the agreement on the explicit understanding that the US would continue to train and equip their forces. For the survivors of Sarajevo, Zepa and Srebrenica, there would be no peace without an internal balance of power.
Here the useful parallels end. Crucially, the US was able to arm the Croats and Bosnians directly. And the US also knew who it was dealing with: Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic were unambiguously in charge of their factions, and the Croatian and Federation militaries were professionally organised. The Syrian rebels, being a melange of competing factions, will not be so easy to arm and, crucially, hold to account when the fighting stops.
In the name of humanitarian intervention, the old-fashioned tools of power politics were deployed to stop the slaughter. The US was able to arm, train and, most importantly, cajole two key actors capable of taking the offensive. But Syria is not Bosnia, and foreign powers may find it a fruitless endeavour to fashion a unified rebel movement.
Bosnia's war ended because of three crucial conditions. First, a massive conventional offensive by two organised and coherent actors in the Yugoslav wars - the Bosniak-Croat Federation (a coalition that took the US two years to push together) and Croatia. Second, the sidelining of the Bosnian Serbs at the Dayton negotiation table: the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, was therefore not negotiating on the basis of regime survival. Third, the utter exhaustion of international patience with the Bosnian Serbs after Srebrenica, and the Sarajevo marketplace bombings of summer 1995, permitted a sustained campaign of air strikes - but these were subsidiary to the Bosnian and Croatian military efforts.
The lesson of Bosnia is thus not that safe zones and airstrikes can halt humanitarian disaster. Far from it: even in Kosovo, a concerted aerial effort against military apparatus did not of itself halt the rump-Yugoslavia's ethnic cleansing (a threat of a very large ground invasion had more to do with it). A safe haven that is not credible is little more than herding civilians for slaughter: an example of an idea that, if not done properly, may in fact be worse than doing nothing at all.
Nor should we trumpet an on-the-ground military balance that ended the humanitarian disaster in Bosnia as the solution for Syria. In Bosnia, this involved extensive arming and training of not only an internal faction in the conflict, but also that of a neighbouring state given implicit authorisation to launch the largest military land operation in Europe since the Second World War. They were, however, coherent and unified factions - something conspicuously absent in Syria, where the largest group even itself claims to only represent 'almost' 60 per cent of the opposition.
This is not to suggest that military solutions will be doomed to failure: despite the nay-saying, the Libya campaign did much to depose al-Qadhafi. However, if the international community - in whatever form it takes in this instance - is to intervene with force in Syria, it should take care use realistic and workable templates. Regrettably, Bosnia offers few of these for Syria.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.