The international community needs a better strategy for the intractable war in Syria. Washington and Moscow are jointly pushing for an international conference that would bring representatives of the Assad regime and the opposition to the table. The question is, if the sides show up — which is not clear at the moment — how likely is it that they will agree on a deal? And if they do agree on a deal, who will ensure that it doesn’t dissolve into more bloodletting? We believe that any deal is likely to require, among other things, international peacekeepers and that the world is going to have to start getting used to the idea.
There is no doubt that the U.S. has critical interests at stake in Syria. A key state in the heart of the Middle East is being devastated by a war that will soon have killed 100,000, already has forced more than 1 million into neighboring states, and that increasingly provides opportunities for Al Qaeda-linked groups to establish bases. The involvement of regional actors, the pressure on an already overstressed Iraq and the presence of highly lethal chemical weapons only underscore the risks. President Barack Obama, leading a war-weary nation, has been understandably reluctant to intervene militarily just to satisfy the urge to “do something.” But diplomacy alone may not be enough for a conflict that, increasingly threatens to engulf its neighbors. The Assad regime has been buoyed by recent gains, while the opposition appears more divided and ineffectual, except for radical elements whose prominence feeds the regime’s narrative that is defending Syria against “terrorists.”
We need an approach that increases military pressure on the brutal Assad regime so that it becomes obvious to all that President Bashar Assad cannot possibly hang on to power. At the same time, we need a concept for an eventual peace settlement that offers some hope to his fellow Alawites — and other allied minorities in Syria — since they will otherwise fear retribution at the hands of the opposition and therefore fight to the death. Assad must go, but the preponderance of Alawites need a vision for a way they can be safe and secure in a future Syria, if we wish to persuade them and their chief foreign supporter Russia to go along with our plan. We need bigger sticks and better carrots — without assuming a major role in the war, given what we have experienced in Iraq as well as Afghanistan.
And we have been here before. The conditions mentioned here are similar to what transpired in Bosnia two decades ago. The Bosnia recipe is, in fact, the best first approximation to what we should be trying to accomplish in Syria. After two years of war and hesitation, the United States, with allies, intensified its engagement, unifying and building up the flagging Bosniak and Croat forces. NATO conducted sustained airstrikes, and then diplomacy produced a peace accord that gave the Serbs territory while introducing outside peacekeepers to provide security. Alas, just as in Syria, roughly 100,000 died and many hundreds of thousands were displaced before this happened, but the Dayton accords ultimately ushered in a peace that has lasted to this day.
The parallels between Syria and Bosnia are instructive. As with President Barack Obama in regard to Syria at present, the Clinton administration keenly wanted to avoid getting involved in Bosnia. Fearing a quagmire, the administration was ambivalent about its own proposal to lift the arms embargo. In turn, the arms embargo froze an unfair advantage into place in Bosnia, as it has done in Syria. And just as in Syria, the administration’s initial focus was mainly on providing humanitarian aid along with limited training and support for covert material shipments for the weaker side (ironically, then facilitated through cooperation with Iran).
Gradually, as President Bill Clinton recognized the growing risks of protracted fighting, particularly its impact on NATO, U.S. policy changed. Washington worked to end the war between Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats and helped the two forge a military alliance that could take on the Bosnian Serb Army. U.S. and allied pressure on the United Nations finally gained NATO the authority to carry out sustained airstrikes. And, of course, Washington took the lead in diplomacy, bringing the parties to Dayton, Ohio, to end years of futile peace talks and hammer out the agreement that ended the war. That diplomatic triumph brought with it an obligation on the part of the United States to deploy ground troops to enforce the peace. American forces numbered 20,000 out of NATO’s initial force of somewhat more than 50,000, though the relative U.S. contribution declined over time (as did the overall size of the force, which has by now withdrawn from Bosnia).
Does the success of the Dayton Peace Agreement mean that a similar approach could work in Syria? No two situations are identical, but the experience in Bosnia is a reminder that tailored outside intervention — the kind that induces the parties not just to talk but to compromise — can end seemingly hopeless conflicts, saving thousands of lives in the process.
The parallels have their limits. With the risk of chemical weapons, possible implosion of allies like Jordan and explosions in Iraq, the United States has far greater interests in ending the conflict in Syria than it ever did in Bosnia. At the same time, the risks associated with intervention also are larger. The opposition in Syria is more fractious and difficult to control than the Bosnian and Croat armies, which closely heeded direction from Washington. Another major difference with Bosnia is the role of Russia, which is more wedded to the Assad regime than it was to Bosnia’s Serbs. American activism in Bosnia did not provoke Russian obstructionism, but the situation is tougher in Syria. The challenge for Washington is to find a way to change the military balance on the ground without alienating Moscow.
The first step must be to build the opposition’s military capabilities to change the dynamics on the ground, which have been tilting in the regime’s favor of late. It was intensive military training and political engagement by the United States and its allies that helped transform Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats from bitter enemies to effective Federation allies. It was the rapid advance of the Federation army — together with NATO air power — that brought humbled Serbs to bargain seriously at Dayton. Russia ultimately accepted the painful realities in Bosnia. Nor will it be blind to battlefield dynamics in Syria. If the Assad regime again begins to suffer severe setbacks, Moscow is more, rather than less likely to work with most of the rest of the world to produce a peace agreement. This is particularly the case if the setbacks come at the hands of a Free Syrian Army trained intensively by the United States and its partners, instead of jihadis allied with Al Qaeda.
While the United States has provided some military training, and U.S. diplomats have worked tirelessly with Syria’s fractious opposition, these efforts have not borne fruit. Achieving Bosnia-level success will take a far more concerted effort, at higher levels and with attention-getting military hardware and training for the Free Syrian Army. It is possible that, at some point, Arab League and NATO airstrikes may be needed as well, though it would be preferable not to begin with such an approach. When the tide turns on the ground, so will Moscow’s position on Syria, in all likelihood, increasing the chances for a settlement.
However, an eventual settlement in Syria won’t be as clear-cut as the Bosnian map agreed to at Dayton. Assad has given every indication that he intends to fight at all costs to keep Alawites in Damascus. Syria’s other central cities, though the sites of fierce fighting, still contain a range of sects and ethnicities. And it would be highly desirable that they stay that way if Syria is to remain a unified country.
In Bosnia, NATO’s mission was vastly simplified by the population separation that had taken place during the war. Despite the growing sectarian complexion to the conflict in Syria, and the enormous population displacement, cleansing of the ruling Alawite minority by the opposition has been remarkably infrequent. And rebel leadership has worked across confessional lines in a number of Syria’s towns to rebuild integrated communities. Still, there is no guarantee that this will last. As such, a peace deal will require international peacekeepers.
After the experience in Iraq and the fatigue from Afghanistan, no one seriously expects the United States to send the preponderance of any foreign troops to Syria to implement a peace agreement. But someone is going to have to do it, and America will have to play a leading role. Without U.S. participation on the ground, other nations, including our much-needed European allies, will not step up to help implement the agreement. Forces from Muslim countries would have to take the lead in patrolling the most sensitive and dangerous area, sparing the U.S. from exposure to the improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks that are part of the new Middle East landscape. Russia may wish for a role, too.
There is a long way to go before Bosnia can really be a model for Syria — and before we can get to a peace deal. But we need to start thinking in terms of an integrated, long-term approach that provides a realistic path to a peace settlement as well as an exit strategy. Protecting our interests in Syria will require more than diplomacy.