Bosnia and Syria: Intervention Then and Now

August 15, 2013

When state order collapses, as it did in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as it is doing now in Syria, chaos unleashes existential fear among all the groups who had once sheltered under the protection of the state. Such fear makes it difficult to sustain multi-confessional, pluralist, tolerant orders when dictatorship falls apart. When state order collapses, every confessional or ethnic group asks one question: Who will protect us now?

As Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Druze and Shia ask this question, they know the only possible answer is themselves. In a Hobbesian situation—a war of all against all—each individual gravitates back to the security offered by their clan, sect or ethnic group, or more precisely, to those individuals within those groups who offer armed protection. This is especially the case when dictatorships collapse, for in this case a security vacuum emerges on top of a political one. In a state that never permitted mobilization of political parties across sectarian, clan, or ethnic divides, none of these groups has learned to trust each other in a political order. They may share a hatred of the dictator and a fear of what comes next, but not much else. Politics has never brought them together before. Now they are faced with security dilemmas and they conclude, rationally enough, that they can only face these dilemmas alone, in the safety of their own group. Such was the case in the former Yugoslavia. Such is the case now in Syria.

In listening to the Syrian opposition figures who have fought courageously to create a pluralist, multi-confessional democratic Syria upon the ruins of the Assad regime, I am struck by how much they sound like Yugoslavs, especially the Bosniaks of the early 1990s. They too sought to create a post-ethnic politics after Tito’s death. They too sought to preserve the complex, multi-confessional heritage of tolerance that many in the Syrian opposition are struggling to preserve. These ideals are not abstractions. These Syrian patriots actually lived a Syrian identity beyond confessional divisions. The lesson from Yugoslavia is how difficult it is to sustain these connections and a common identity in the face of the fear that overcomes all ethnic groups upon the collapse of state order. Common identities and loyalties rarely survive the rush to the protection of armed groups and the bitterness that results when these groups begin killing each other. Neither the Yugoslavs of the 1990s nor Syrians today are trapped in sectarian, Islamist ‘fanatical’ or ‘primitive’ or ‘archaic’ emotions (to quote some of the condescending terms that outsiders used to describe the hatreds that tore Yugoslavia apart). What they both lack is time, the experience of democracy, and the opportunity—it can take generations—to forge political alliances across confessional, sectarian, and clan lines. This was the legacy of dictatorship that Tito bequeathed to Yugoslavia and it is Assad’s poisonous gift to Syria. No wonder then that it has proved agonizingly difficult for the Syrian opposition to create a common front against the dictator and a political program for their country after Assad is defeated, killed, or driven into exile. No wonder then that the chief casualty of the Assad regime might just be Syria itself.

Such an analysis helps us to explain why the anti-Assad opposition has been unable to create a believable government in exile linked both to commanders at the front and to the municipal authorities in the liberated zones. Inside and outside, exiles and front-line fighters regard each other with suspicion. There is no effective national command of the insurrection and hence no shared political claim to defend together. In addition there are a number of fighters, the al Nusra Brigade being only one example, for whom the goal is not the defense of a multi-confessional Syria but the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Arab lands. As Western governments have considered their options since the uprising began, they have found it easier to identify those they want to lose than those they want to win.

What they both lack is time, the experience of democracy, and the opportunity to forge political alliances across confessional, sectarian, and clan lines.

Intervention will not occur until interveners can identify with a cause that democratic electorates in Western states can make their own. In the former Yugoslavia it was the Bosniak Sarajevans who understood this clearly and helped to mobilize the outrage in Western countries that eventually made intervention possible. They had always stood for a tolerant, multi-confessional city and in retrospect they did a heroic job in making their cause Europe’s own. Intervention finally occurred in 1995, at least in some measure because international opinion identified the Bosniaks as a worthy victim who could be assisted in the name of a general defense of ‘European values.’ The massacre in Srebrenica and the market bombing in Sarajevo were triggers for intervention, but the ideological ground had been prepared in the West by Sarajevan suffering in the siege. For the moment, the Syrian opposition has failed in making their cause a universal claim.

The Western intervention in Bosnia—air-strikes on Bosnian Serb targets, clandestine assistance to Croatian and Bosniak units who then drove Serb minorities from Croatian and Bosnian territory—brought the parties to Dayton in October 1995.  There Richard Holbrooke negotiated a peace that preserved Bosnia-Hercegovina as a state and forced institution sharing upon unwilling enemies. Western intervention did not succeed in recreating the inter-ethnic tolerance and accommodation. It may only have locked ethnic hostility in place, but it did force ethnic groups to deal with each other politically and to accept, over time, that limited co-operation was a better option than war. The fact remains that no one is dying in Bosnia today.

When Western governments consider Syrian pleas for intervention, it is not Bosnia that comes to their minds, but Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. The decade of interventions that began after 9/11 appears to deliver only lessons of futility and perversity. A decade later both Iraq and Afghanistan rank as failed states. In Libya, Qaddafi may be gone, but power remains in the hands of militias. Moreover, once Qaddafi’s arms flowed out into the Sahara to the Tuareg and al Qaeda in the Maghreb, they were able to take their uprising against the state of Mali to within striking distance of the capital, forcing a French intervention. Anyone contemplating intervention in Syria has to prevent unintended consequences like these, especially the leakage of Syrian chemical and biological weapons stocks to al Qaeda affiliates.

Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan only partly explain why such domestic support as once existed for “humanitarian intervention” has disappeared. Life has also changed for the intervening states themselves. The interventions in Bosnia—and later in Kosovo—were the work of a different time. They were discretionary affairs, small wars of choice that were easily paid for by expansive European and North American societies whose economies were growing robustly. The political confidence that led to these operations depended on budgetary surpluses and on euphoric confidence in the superiority of the Western democratic model in the unipolar moment that followed the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In the current age of sequester, austerity and deficit, this confidence has vanished. Europe’s political elites are exclusively focused on the survival of their economic and political union. The United States, likewise, is struggling with deficits, austerity and recession. To recession-weary democratic publics, nation-building at home seems a more defensible project than nation-building abroad.

In this climate of reduced expectation, a risk-averse form of Realism has taken hold of Western capitals, particularly Washington. Realist proponents ask, what interest does the United States actually have in intervening in Syria at all? Or more pungently, who cares which bunch of thugs runs the country? These are necessary questions and the failure to ask them over Iraq in 2002 led to disaster. After Iraq, the lesson learned has been no more wars of choice, only wars of necessity. The wars of necessity that command reluctant democratic assent in the U.S. are now the drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

It is a sign of the new climate of opinion that when asked about Syria, Obama replied, “Why Syria, why not Congo?” The President’s rhetorical question implied its own answer. Humanitarian suffering alone constitutes no clear principle of triage, and it is a president’s job to do triage, to apportion scarce national resources and scarcer political capital to a few vital tasks. Bloodshed and carnage alone will not—and should not—trigger the dispatch of the Marines.

Inside and outside, exiles and front-line fighters regard each other with suspicion.

It follows, unfortunately, that if seventy thousand deaths in the Syrian civil war have not created the political will to intervene, there is no good reason to suppose that double that number will have any more effect. The Lebanese civil war burned for twenty years. It is not impossible to anticipate the same result in Syria—and for similar reasons. In both Lebanon and Syria, and unlike in Bosnia, external Western interveners have been unable to identify a side whose victory would further their interests.

Western policy is navigating between Scylla and Charybdis. Aligning with the Russians to prop up Assad would be both unconscionable and futile. Invading Syria would reproduce the folly of Iraq. The policy alternative in the middle, between these two options, is hard to define because the Syrian rebels do not constitute either a united front or a believable alternative to the Assad regime. There are no good guys, no victims whose cause can be sold to reluctant publics to ennoble a humanitarian rescue. So little has been done by Washington to aid the rebels that the policy—high on rhetoric, low on action—reads like a further indication—if the failure to move Israel and Palestine towards peace weren’t enough indication already—of reduced American influence in the entire Middle East. For the Realists, facing up to the decisive limits of American power in the region is the beginning of wisdom. For others, Realism looks like abandonment.

Can it really be true that the United States and its allies in the region have no strategic interest in which group of thugs eventually rules Syria? Can it really be true that America will suffer no consequences in the “Arab street” for standing by while tens of thousands of Syrians are killed by their own regime? Is it in America’s interest for Syria to collapse and become a failed state? To pose these as rhetorical questions is to suggest the answers. Syria matters, and its future matters not only to itself and its people but to an entire region and to Western interests there.

Apparently after much internal debate the Obama administration has concluded that Syria does matter. Lethal and non-lethal aid is being funneled to Syrian fighters, through Turkey and through Jordan, under the watchful eye of the CIA. Further assistance is reaching the fighters through Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The purpose of arms transfer is political as much as it is military. Its intent is to give the U.S. and its allies some leverage over the groups who receive the arms. The leverage, presumably, will be applied to induce the Syrian opposition to behave like a government in waiting and to act like one when Assad falls. Acting like a government would mean doing whatever it can to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria and to prevent a wave of revenge killings against minorities, particularly the Alawites. Behaving like a government would mean initiating an inclusive constitutional process that would give a fractured society a chance to heal and come together. Behaving like a government would mean accepting U.N. peacekeepers to give the society the chance to hold violence-free elections.

To recession-weary democratic publics, nation-building at home seems a more defensible project than nation-building abroad.

The question no one can answer is whether external aid has come too late to confer any leverage at all, as the rebels close in and the final battles for Damascus get underway. The same question hovers over the increasing flow of aid to civilian authorities and municipalities in the liberated zones of Syria. What leverage can the U.S. hope to exert over the post-Assad landscape when aid has been so little and so late? The decisive gesture, of course, would be for the United States to interdict Assad’s use of air power, possibly through the activation of the Patriot batteries in Turkey. Thus far, there is no evidence that the U.S. is ready to take this step, and its hesitation is a mixture of risk aversion and strategic calculation. The Syrian crisis has dug the Russians and Chinese ever more deeply into their opposition to any U.N. Security Council authorization of the use of force, and so the Americans face a lesser-evil choice. Interdiction of Assad’s air power would collapse the Assad regime, but it would also jeopardize the support America needs from these powers in its ongoing duel with the Iranians. America will have to decide whether it needs China and Russia more than it needs leverage over post-Assad Syria and the new landscape in the region.

Nearly twenty years ago, as the intervention in Bosnia came together, the geo-strategic order looked very different. The Russian state was near collapse and the Chinese were cautiously edging their way out into the international arena. Neither stood in the way of intervention in Bosnia. Today, the Syrian crisis lays bare the contours of a very different world: divided between authoritarian crony capitalist oligarchies that have set themselves against any form of international intervention in sovereign states and distracted, deficit-ridden democracies that lack the will or capacity to shape even a region as strategic as the Middle East. The Syrians huddling under tents in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the families queuing for bread in free Aleppo while scanning the sky for planes overhead, the fighters taking on a dictator’s tanks—they are the ones paying the price for this divided world. They are the ones now thinking that they have been abandoned. If they win their freedom, they will have no reason to thank us and they will have no inclination, as they settle their scores, to listen to anything the West, or anyone else, has to say. We should will them on to victory, but due to our inability to act consequently in their defense, we have reason to wonder whether Syria will survive once they win.

This essay is exerpted from The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel and forthcoming from MIT Press

Photographs: James Gordon/flickr and Dieter Zirnig/flickr


In Bosnia, (largely unarmed and democratically elected) legitimate government consisting not only of Bosniak - Muslims but also Serbs and Croats fought against radical Serbs who wanted to ethnically cleanse everyone else, with massive help and weapons and volunteers from Serbia. Without that help, Serb extremist would have lost long ago.
In Syria, legitimate government consisting not only of Alawites but also Sunni Christians and others fight against radical Sunni who wanted to (create Sharia state and) ethnically cleanse everyone else, with massive help and weapons and volunteers from Gulf states, Turkey and some Western countries on financial leash of Gulf states. Without that help, Sunni extremist would have lost long ago.

@Mladen, what a misrepresentation.
But if you want to oversimplify it, you should say that "without massive help and weapons from the US government and extremists from non-democratic countries in the Middle East, the Bosniak-Muslims (as you call them) and Croats would have lost long ago.

In the Yugoslav war, the Serbs were overwhelmingly the VICTIMS.  The Croatian Nazi Ustashe had the Vatican and the US/ Germany/England on its side.  The Bosnian Muslims had Mujahadin and Arab oil along with the US/Germany/England on its side.  The Serbs were isolated and demonized with a campaign of deliberate LIES.  Serb history was ignored or re-invented. (eg. the WW2 holocaust of over 750,000 Serbs at the hands of these same Croat Nazis and Muslim extremists was off limits for public consideration!)  I could go on and on!

The article assumes that Assad will lose. if that is the case, it is surely in our interests to speed up the process, both for humanitarian reasons, and to pre-empt growing Salafist and al-Qaida influence among the rebels. But is it the case? ItxL4f2b seems less certain now than it did a year ago.

"the market bombing in Sarajevo were triggers for intervention, but the ideological (sic!) ground had been prepared in the West"

Whatever one thinks of Ignatieff's argument, the website recommended here is a hive of war crimes denial that consistently prevaricates about the Balkan wars, including the ludicrous claim made once again that the defenders of the Bosnian multiethnic republic massacred their own people in the Markale Market to provoke Western intervention. This lie has been refuted countless times, but like the Holocaust deniers with their feverish measurements of the gas chamber nozzles proving it all impossible, this liue about the seige of Sarajevo continues to raise its ugly head. The purveyors of these lies are little more than a gaggle of old-style leftists and Serbian nationalist apologists.

Bosnia has at least three differnt sets of people represented by a rotating group of Presidents and a non-local European/American High Representative who can dismiss whoever he/she wants. And while the peace that is Dayton is holding (I would say largely because the neighbouring leadership (Tudjman, Izetbegovic Milosevic) there have all died), the moment the High Representative looks the other way, someone is going to start a fight. Bosnia is like a video on pause. Many hope that membership to the larger group of multiple ethnicities that is the EU will get rid of the tension, but I have my doubts. There are still too many hardliners on all sides who are still alive and happy to settle scores when they get the chance.
Syria is, in some ways just like Bosnia. It is in the middle of the Shia/Sunni divide, with a healthy mix of Christians and others added in. The Arab countries seem happy to send weapons to the rebels because the are Sunnis. The Shia factions (including Assad) are being helped by Iran and Hezbollah. In the middle are the Christians and the rest. The West is wringing its hands trying to help _someone_, in the hopes to assuage their conscience.
No one has the appetite to instill peacekeepers and build institutions. That was something done in the past; the last few conflicts that the West has had a hand in have not had anything. America and the coalition of the willing have helped in the plunder of Iraq and when things got too hot, they left. Afghanistan is also being abandoned. There is no Dayton for either of these countries, nor is there a High Representative or any guarantee that war won't start up once more when the West leaves.
I don't know what the solution is, but I doubt Bosnia is the model anyone wants to follow for Syria. I say, let them sort it out by themselves. Let us not arm any of these folks, let us be honest about who gave who what weapons. And hope and pray for the poor sods stuck in the middle.

This is a very rude misinterpretation of the reasons for the war in Bosnia.

Izetbegovic requested international recognition from the EC despite Serbian vehement objections. The EC, instead of respecting the B&H consitution and the Helsinki Accords, responded by requiring a referendum which boiled down to the rule: "Might is Right." In the referendum, held February 29-March 1 1992, the Muslims and Croats (62.68%) endorsed independence while the Serbs boycotted the referendum. The Croats played a duplitious game. They wanted B&H out of Yugoslavia, before demanding secession of their part of B&H and joining Croatia. This declaration of independence was a trigger for war.

Hose Cutileiro, the Portugese Foreign Minister as Portugal held the rotating EC presidency, chaired The International Conference on Bosnia and Herzegovina on February 14 in Sarajevo. As a follow-up, he sponsored a meeting in Lisbon on February the 23rd. Izetbegovic represented the Muslims, while Dr. Radovan Karadzic and Mate Boban represented the Serbs and Croats respectively. Cutileiro, was successful in brokering a preliminary agreement. B&H was to be a confederation divided into three ethnic regions based on a constitution drafted by Lord Carrington and Cutileiro using Swiss-style cantons as the model. All three parties signed the agreement. This agreement was probably the last chance to avert the civil/religious war.

Cutileiro, in a letter to the Economist, confirmed that "principles for future constitutional arrangements of Bosnia and Herzegovina" were AGREED BY ALL THREE PARTIES (Muslim, Serb and Croat) in Sarajevo on March 18, 1992 as the basis for future negotiations. These continued, MAPS AND ALL, until the summer, when the MUSLIMS RENEGED ON THE AGREEMENT....To be fair, President Izetbegovic and his aides were ENCOURAGED TO SCUPPER THAT DEAL and to fight for a unitary Bosnian state by well-meaning outsiders who thought they knew better" [Economist, 1995].

Now, how is this situation in Syria similar to Bosnia: Markale attack was staged, and my guess that is the case with poisoning as well.

Beautifully written article. However, I am not sure that we should be rooting for these organ eating Rebels. No  one knows how many are Al Qaeda or Jihadis. US says 15-25%. Russia and Syria claims more. Why are we doing this only to get an Islamic state to be overthrown with a new civil war assuming Assad falls. See Muslim Bortherhood in Egypt ironically Hafez, the father, fought these terrorists before. You have not discussed why Christians and other minorities are supporting Assad. Rebels have taken Maaloula. The media keeps portraying what the Rebels do as if they handed out coffee and baklava to take these towns. The media are also speaking out of the both sides of their mouths. In one case saying the Rebels had the upper hand and that is why Assad would have allegedly used the CWs (discredited by most of the western world) and in another that they do not have suficient support. How many of the 100,000 deaths are attributed to the Rebels? It seems that it is easy to take sides when we have no skin in the game. In Lebanon, the country with the most refugees (over one million), who would accept to have their population increase by 25% with groups that will eventually turn against them?. See previous Lebanese civil wars initiated by palestinians. Canada is accepting 1300 Syrian refugees. Would the US accept 25% of their population in refugees. Not that I am accusing the refugees of being terrorists but it is easier to be radicalized as per the palestinian case in Lebanon. Shouldn't humanitarian effors be the bulk of the internation community's responsability rather than arming one side? We are rather vocal on what support Bashar would have received from Iran or Hebollah but silent on what Bandar would have provided Rebels.Seriously? No one talks about what happened in Aleppo because that would discredit the propoganda being spread that the Rebels do have crude capabilities to carry out CW attacks. Not a fan of either but since this has to be a choice (and should be for the Syrian people not us), I can see why most still support Bashar over a would be Taliban style government.

" preserve the complex, multi-confessional heritage of tolerance that many... are struggling to preserve"
doesn't strike me as anything nearing an accurate description of the situation in Syria (and before that in Yugoslavia, or any other faux-national but wildly disperate types of cohabitation).
Tolerance, my foot. Deeply antagonistic groups can only be held together by brutal oppression. Once the lid blows, there she goes.
And the rest is violence--although perhaps of the equal opportunity variety.

Right, more revisionist history. So the Serbs, led by Karadzic, Milosevic, Mladic, Europe's worst war criminals since WWII, were foiled from their attempt to forge a peaceful Switzerland in Bosnia by a decleration of independence. And the Kosovo situation, that preceeded any declaration of indepence which led to Nato stepping in, where does that fit in your thesis? A book can be written on the commitments broken by the Serbs who were known as compulsive liars. 
More insteresting is how Ignatieff, who was known as a non interventionist appeaser of Serb agression while the war in Bosnia was going on, has altered his point of view. But you can still sense his cynicism, as if the suffering in Bosnia was a strategy and little else. 

The notion that NATO's intervention in the Balkans was either successful or well-intentioned is not even close to a given.  In fact, plenty of Serbs and Russians and former CIA agents and investigative reporters clearly articulate the view that a primary purpose of that incursion was to overturn a more or less functioning social democratic polity, a well-known thorn in the sides of both neocons and neoliberals such as those who are preening themselves here.  One might turn to aricles in Consortium News for demonstration( of this contention, among many other sources.

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