Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Syria...the Balkan experience points a way

Below is a reposting of a column I wrote regarding Syria and what could be best endgame of a US intervention in their civil war.   It is as pertinent now, over a month later, but the mechanism for some political settlement has been set up.  It appears that Russia, who agreed to the political mechanism for negotiation, has continued to supply Syria with heavy weight armaments and the momentum in the war has swung to  the Assad side.   Pres. Obama, bitten by not so good outcomes in Libya and Iraq, has procrastinated in his decision until now, and hopefully it will not be too late.  He received a push from former Pres. Bill Clinton, urging humanitarian intervention, n which might give him some domestic cover to protect him from the ire of the liberal wing of the Democratic party.

The irony of Clinton's statement is that Clinton's reluctance to take action in the Bosnia conflict resulted in 100,000 killed and 2 million refugees and the coining of the phrase of "ethnic cleansing" while he dawdled.  It took enormous bi-partisan effort to get him off his dime and finally working with NATO, a no fly zone was created that equalized the power of those fighting the Serbian attempt to carve out greater Serbia from Bosnia.  The result is that ultimately there was a political settlement in the Dayton Accord that resulted in the end of fighting and killing.  There was also a mechanism set up to bring to justice the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing campaign in the war crimes trials in the Hague, which is still on going. 
A version of the following post  appeared  in the Sky Hi Daily News during the week of May 8, 2013.:

 Syria’s civil war  is emerging as a  US foreign policy crisis  and there is a gnawing feeling   of “been there, done that in Iraq and Afghanistan”.  While it was probably a  mistake, last year Pres. Obama drew a red line that would trigger greater US involvement if  Syrian Pres. Assad’s used  chemical weapons. There is some evidence Assad did.  
Empty threats risk future threats not being taken seriously and the president has been under pressure to make good on his threat. At least Obama is right in being cautious now. All of his options carry risks. Ethnic  civil wars like the one in Syria are the tar sands of  outsider intervention; easy to get into and  difficult  to get out of , and risk  spreading conflicts beyond borders.
The New York Times reported Israel  wiped out Syria’s main chemical weapons facility and long range missile storehouses last week.   While the strikes served Israel’s purpose to take out Syria’s arming  Hezbollah in Lebanon, it  may  also have made the chemical weapons redline  issue  moot.     No  one is claiming Israel’s strikes were a proxy for making good on a US threat, but  it served that purpose, too.
Military aid to the rebels and no fly zones should still be on the table because they  promote an end that serves our national interests. . Israel’s airstrikes demonstrated the weakness of Syria’s air defense and the feasibility of enforcing no fly zones. Boots on the ground have wisely  been ruled out by about everyone in the US. We learned some hard lessons  in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The situation on the ground has changed since last year,  with Al Qaeda- like  organizations  hijacking many of the rebel groups and with few  moderate  forces left to arm.     Our weapons could fall  into the wrong hands, making the situation more dangerous. We can only hope our intelligence assessments are accurate.
 Giving military aid  and enforcing no fly zones could   be the catalyst to get  Russia to force Assad to step down, since  military aid to the rebels could tip the stalemated conflict against Assad. The final outcome is still mostly in Russia’s hands. Assad is their client.   Russia’s reluctance to force Assad out is understandable. The fall of Assad could put Al Qaeda like rebels in charge,  closer to their borders.
Russia may be gambling that our  reluctance to get involved  will not change. Beware.  We found ourselves eventually caught up in the Balkan Wars in the 1990’s as the former Yugoslavia broke up.   Media coverage of  ethnic cleansing , fleeing refugees, and the shelling of Dubrovnik  and Sarajevo  turned  US public opinion around  to support  intervention.  Western countries also   feared Bosnia could become a stronghold for Al Qaeda Europe.  
During  the Balkan conflict NATO put only peacekeeper boots on the ground, but they enforced   no fly zones and  bombed Serbia  during the Kosovo  conflict.  Military aid flowed freely to all parties, with Russia supplying Serbia and the West backing Croatia.  
The conflict  in the Balkans  was ultimately  resolved by diplomats and the agreements   contain models that could benefit both Russia and the West in Syria.   Croatia and Serbia were carved from   the former Yugoslavia.  These new nations  were left with even fewer ethnic minorities  though these were already   areas with  historical cohesiveness.   Croatia joins the European Union this July  and last month Serbia agreed to enter in negotiations to resolve Kosovo’s status.
 Bosnia, still balanced  demographically  between Muslims, Croatian Catholics, and Serbs,  is a less successful result of the settlement. Ethnic factions are hunkered down in cohesive geographic sectors,  barely working together cooperatively on a national level.   At least the shooting, ethnic cleansing  and threat to Europe was  stopped. 
 Syria  also has  some  religious cohesive regions . A Balkanized solution just might  work for Russia and the US.   
For Felicia Muftic’s  Balkan background, visit
Column translated into Croatian is also posted at

Footnote:  The New York Times today reports that Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Russia today meeting with their President and high ranking officials to discuss a negotiated settlement.  It appears that either the threat of US military aid to the rebels or a switch in the view of what Russia believes to be in their self interest has  changed.  Whether the Israeli strike figured into the equation is not known, but it did demonstrate the fear that the Syrian civil war would spread which would not be in the interest of either Russia or the US.

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