Is Syria like the Balkans?

I have long resisted parallels between the Balkans, in particular Bosnia, and Syria. Here are the notes on the subject I prepared for a recent presentation on the subject:

1. Context counts. One sense in which the context is similar is that the Balkans and Syria were once part of the Ottoman Empire. Their populations were not homogenized into nation states. They preserve distinct ethnic and sectarian characteristics to a far greater extent than in Western Europe.

2. But otherwise the context really is different

• Ethnic nationalism was a cause of the war in Bosnia, among the most important of them. Heightened sectarian and ethnic feeling is a consequence of the war in Syria.

• In Bosnia, the neighbors were actively trying to divide the territory. In Syria, the neighbors are supporting proxies but still trying to avoid getting too involved and fearing division of the territory.

• Russia is supplying and financing the regime in Syria. It was not playing nearly so active role in supporting the Serbs in Bosnia.

• Russia was Yeltsin’s, not Putin’s: it was retreating from the world stage, not trying to force its way on.

• The United States in the 1990s was at the peak of its unipolar moment. Today it faces serious challenges throughout the Middle East and in Asia and war fatigue at home.

3. The Dayton negotiations produced a territorial division of Bosnia along ethnic lines and saved the Serbs from defeat.

• Milosevic came to Dayton suing for peace, because he feared a mass exodus of Serbs from Bosnia along the lines of what had happened a few months before in Croatia.

• The Americans compelled President Izetbegovic to agree to a settlement he regarded as unjust.

• Almost 20 years of effort has not reversed the ethnic cleansing and separation caused by the war, whose territorial dimension is a major barrier to peace implementation.

4. If there is a parallel to Syria in the Balkans, it is Kosovo, not Bosnia.

• There Milosevic was trying to assert control over territory that belonged to Serbia.

• He violated even minimal standards of decency by attacking civilian populations, chasing people from their homes and rendering something like half the population refugees.

• The US took advantage of the unipolar moment to launch a war without UN Security Council approval. Milosevic was indicted at The Hague Tribunal during the war.

• The outcome in Kosovo was not ethnoterritorial, except for a small portion in the north that is now being reintegrated with the rest of the territory.

• Ethnoterritorial separation may look desirable to end a war, but it creates conditions in which a real peace process is difficult if not impossible to implement within the context of a single sovereign state.

5. The military intervention against Yugoslavia was a vital prelude to the Kosovo settlement.

• Serbia became concerned that damage to its infrastructure from NATO bombing would be irreversible, making it difficult for Milosevic to remain in power.

• The Serbian army withdrew from Kosovo, Belgrade lost all control of the situation there, and the refugees returned en masse.

• Though defeated militarily, Milosevic remained in power for another year or so, until his own people brought him down at the polls.

• He fell at an election, having allowed local observers and vote counting at the polling places.

6. Nothing like these conditions exist today in Syria.

• Assad is winning, not losing. From the opposition perspective, leaving him in power is not an option. From the regime perspective, removing him is not an option.

• Military intervention by Iran and Russia continues. Any definitive military intervention on behalf of the opposition seems far off.

• An election in Syria today would unquestionably produce an outcome favorable to Assad, with many people not voting and the polling far from free and far.

7. (only if needed) A quick word also about Crimea.

• President Putin’s playbook there is not borrowed from the Americans in Kosovo, as he sometimes implies.

• The US did not in Kosovo unilaterally occupy and annex a province. There was no quicky referendum, but rather a well-coordinated declaration of independence after eight years of UN administration and several years of UN-led negotiation.

• Kosovo is now recognized by over 100 sovereign states.

• Putin’s playbook is copied from Milosevic, who used military force claiming to protect co-nationals and re-establish full control over territory he regarded as rightfully his own.




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One thought on “Is Syria like the Balkans?”

  1. And there is yet another very important difference: in the Balkans, the warring sides were far more clearly defined than in Syria, so it was relatively easy for outside powers to influence the outcome through support, militarily or otherwise, for a particular side at a particular moment. In Syria, by contrast, rebels are divided into a number of factions, often hostile to one another, thereby making any substantial help to rebel fighters too risky, as you don’t know whom you are actually helping.

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