What Congress should do
I have resisted comparisons between Syria and Bosnia, or Syria and Kosovo, as the global and regional circumstances are different. It does no good to draw conclusions that just don’t apply in a distinct situation. Bashar al Asad is not Slobodan Milosevic, the Middle East is not the Balkans, Yeltsin’s Russia is not Putin’s Russia, Obama’s United States is not Clinton’s. Distinct times and places make for dicey comparisons.
But as the Congress considers what to do about Syria, some of its members will no doubt want to think about the Balkans, where American bombing campaigns twice ended wars that seemed interminable. So better to help them get it right than to suggest they ignore the precedents.
My starting assumption is that Bashar al Asad did in fact use chemical weapons against Syria’s civilian population on August 21 and several other occasions. If like Vladimir Putin, you think this “utter nonsense,” stop reading here.
If Congress decides to authorize military action, it needs to understand what President Obama has known for a long time: we stand on a slippery slope. How Bashar al Asad will react is anyone’s guess, but we know that Milosevic reacted to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia by escalating his effort to ethnically cleanse Albanians from Kosovo. Likewise, the Bosnian Serbs reacted to the red line known as the “Gorazde rules” intended to protect UN designated safe areas by attacking Sarajevo. NATO responded by escalating in turn. If Bashar al Asad repeats chemical attacks, or sponsors terrorist attacks against American assets around the world, Washington needs to be prepared to escalate.
But bombing and escalation are not a policy. Nor is a well-targeted and time-limited bombing campaign an appropriate response to mass murder of civilians with chemical (or any other) weapons. Bashar al Asad is not a military problem. He is a political one. The military is a blunt instrument that should be wielded within the context of a broader political strategy to end his rule in Syria, block an extreme Islamist takeover, and put Syria on course towards a more open and democratic society.
The bombing in Bosnia was extensive, eventually reaching the communication nodes of the Bosnian Serb army. It was those tertiary targets that changed the course of the war, because the Serbs were unable to protect their long confrontation line with the Federation forces once they lost their classified communications capability. But even this extensive bombing might have been fruitless, or borne bitter fruit, had it not been accompanied by a diplomatic strategy, which today we associate with the Dayton agreements and Richard Holbrooke but at the time was associated with President Clinton and National Security Adviser Tony Lake.
Likewise in Kosovo, the NATO bombing followed on Yugoslav rejection of the Rambouillet agreement. The war ended with UN Security Council resolution 1244, which was the political counterpart of the military-technical agreement providing for withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo. Resolution 1244 imposed UN administration on Kosovo to develop democratic institutions and rule of law, with a view to an eventual political decision on Kosovo’s final status. NATO did not set removal of Milosevic as a war objective. But he was gone within one and a half years as the result of an election he called and a mass nonviolent movement that demanded he accept it.
I am not privy to the Administration’s military planning, but a serious political strategy would continue to aim for a power-sharing arrangement that shoves Bashar al Asad aside. The diplomacy would likely benefit from broader military action (against the Syrian air force, Scuds and artillery) than is currently contemplated, especially if it aimed at tilting the battlefield in the opposition direction. I don’t know if the Congress is willing to point in that direction, as it might require deeper American commitment than we can afford at present. But at the very least Congress should insist on stronger support for the Syrian opposition.
Is there an American interest in getting more deeply involved? Continuation of the war will likely cause state collapse in Syria as well as weaken Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and possibly Turkey. Al Qaeda affiliated extremists in both Iraq and Syria will be the beneficiaries. Kurdish irredentism is a likely consequence. The Syrian war has the potential to reshape the Levant in ways that are inimical to American interests. If Congress is going to worry about military action in response to chemical weapons use by Syria, it should also worry about a political and military strategy to counter longer-term threats to Middle East peace and stability with potentially gigantic costs to the United States.