Syria and the Bosnia Fallacy

What Bosnia and Iraq teach us about the possibility of creating a Syrian Union.

U.N. troops in Sarajevo, 1995.The fierce fighting in Aleppo only underscores the point that neither the regime of Bashar al-Assad nor the opposition fighting for his overthrow is likely to gain a decisive victory anytime soon. Yet one point is apparent: there can be no return to the pre-2011 status quo. Too much blood has been spilled to permit any sort of power-sharing arrangement between the regime and the opposition. At the same time, Assad does not have sufficient strength to crush the rebellion in one sure stroke. So the fighting is likely to continue in a bloody war of attrition until something happens to change the balance of power on the battlefield.

One possibility is that Assad and his immediate lieutenants could be killed, either by opposition forces or by elements within the regime that might hope presenting Assad’s head on a plate would help their own negotiations to preserve their lives and property. A second is for the international community to mount a direct intervention to engage in a forcible peacemaking enterprise—separating combatants, creating safe areas both for the opposition and for the various minority groups that have continued to back the regime. Neither of these seems likely at this point.

The likelihood of a prolonged stalemate, however, does not mean that we should cease thinking about possible outcomes in a post-Assad Syria. And it is important for policy makers in Washington and in other capitals to divest themselves of what might be called the “Bosnia fallacy.”

As Yugoslavia was imploding, the Bosnia fallacy was the belief that the various ethnic and sectarian groups in Bosnia still would give their first loyalty to an amorphous idea of “Bosnia” and would trust “national” institutions to represent them and protect their interests. Even when elections in 1990 showed that most citizens of “Bosnia” voted for ethnic parties to represent communal interests, with those political forces standing for cross-ethnic platforms marginalized, the belief that a shared Bosnian identity would matter more to Bosnians than being Bosniak (Muslim), Serb or Croat continued to exercise a real hold over the imaginations of Western statesmen.

To avert the looming civil war, the three leading political parties in Bosnia—the Muslim Democratic Action Party, the Serbian Democratic Party and the Croatian Democratic Union—realized they would have to set aside their maximalist agendas and find some sort of compromise. Alija Izetbegovic, Radovan Karadzic and Mate Boban—the respective leaders of the parties who compromised the collective leadership of the republic—all reluctantly agreed in Lisbon in 1992 to create a decentralized Bosnian federation based on ethnic cantons. The plan, developed by Lord Peter Carrington, the former British foreign secretary and the former secretary-general of NATO and ambassador José Cutileiro (Portugal was chairing the European Community at the time) required a Muslim-dominated central government to give up many of its prerogatives and for Croat and Serbian areas to reject secession to join Croatia and Serbia.

Izetbegovic accepted this agreement reluctantly because it meant a diminution of the traditional influence exercised by the Bosniak community over Bosnia during the communist period, even though Bosniaks formed only a plurality, not a majority, of the population. The Serbs and Croats, likewise, had to give up their dreams of “Greater Serbia” and “Greater Croatia” and accept territorial compromises as well. No one was particularly ecstatic about the deal—but all saw it as the only reasonable way to escape all-out war, since clashes had already begun.

The West—particularly the United States—was not overly enthused by this agreement either. Some European politicians, swept by the enthusiasm which accompanied the launching of the new “European Union” to deepen the integration started by the European Community, were disturbed by the application of communal and ethnic criteria at a time when the prevailing mood on the Continent was that Europeans had moved past such things.

The United States also was troubled by the application of the ethnic principle, particularly the devolution of power to ethnically defined districts. Beyond that, American policy makers seemed uncomfortable with the idea that people might be more loyal to ethnic, religious and tribal identities then to national ones. More practically, there were concerns that the Lisbon agreement might encourage small-scale ethnic cleansing; since Bosnia was to be divided into cantons, the worry was that once a canton was designated as Muslim, Serb or Croat, the titular majority would drive out minorities.

When it became clear that the outside powers were not going to force compliance with the agreement—and with U.S. promises of support for the Muslim-led central government in Sarajevo even if it renounced the Lisbon accords—the agreement fell apart in April, and the civil war began. Inheriting most of the weaponry of the former Yugoslav army, the Bosnian Serbs soon won on the battlefield what had been denied them at Lisbon—and rejected further agreements in 1993 and 1994 that sought to resurrect the Lisbon arrangements. The Bosnian war finally was settled, after thousands of deaths, by the Dayton Accords, in which the United States embraced the principle of ethnically based units (federating a Croat and a Muslim entity which in turn was joined to a Serbian republic)—an arrangement that ironically left the Bosniaks with less territory than they would have received under the Lisbon settlement.

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