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.

The Bosnia fallacy was reiterated in 2003, when Iraqi exiles confidently told President George W. Bush in a White House meeting that there was no real salience to identities such as Kurd, Sunni and Shia—that all embraced a common Iraqi identity, a line of thinking embraced by some within the administration who argued that in a post-Saddam Iraq liberated from his tyranny, Iraqis would rally behind a shared national identity. Years of civil strife in the country since 2003 showed how flawed these assumptions really were. Similarly, despite the rhetoric on Cairo’s Tahrir Square that there were neither Muslims nor Copts, only Egyptians, the reality in post-Mubarak Egypt is that communal identity is still quite relevant.

Moreover, as Amitai Etzioni argues in his forthcoming book Hot Spots, in many Middle Eastern states, the first loyalty of people is to their ethnic or confessional group. “National” institutions are seen primarily as a way to divide up the “spoils” and allocate them to different groups. So any change in regime in Syria therefore changes the “compact” that has allocated power, property and influence to the different communities that make up the country—which is one reason why Assad’s regime still survives, given the fears that its likely replacement will bring about a Sunni ascendancy in the country. Syria could see a scenario similar to neighboring Iraq, where Sunni hegemony under Saddam has been replaced by an emerging Shia domination under the Maliki administration.

Some believe that in the event of Assad’s death (or a significant weakening of his power), different groups in Syria might reach out to the opposition to discuss a transition of power. One easily could envision a future meeting in Istanbul that would lay the groundwork for replacing the current Syrian Republic with a Syrian Union, based on resurrecting some of the entities that existed during the first part of the French mandate (1920–1936), including separate Alawite and Druze states as well as regional cantons based on Aleppo and Damascus.

Saudi Arabia helped broker an end to the devastating civil war in Lebanon with the Taif Accords in 1989; in principle, a similar agreement, which would recognize Sunni ascendancy in Syria but institutionalize a series of protections for other groups, could be viable and in line with stated Saudi interests and concerns.

A Lisbon-style agreement such as the initial plan for Bosnia might not satisfy the Sunni majority—which might hope to exercise control over all of Syria based simply on sheer numbers—and minorities might have to accept smaller cantons and less influence in a post-Assad Syria. But given that similar results emerged in places such as Bosnia and Iraq only after years of fighting, might not Syrians themselves be willing to accept such compromises, albeit reluctantly?

The success of any such agreement also would require the outside powers—including the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States—to support such a process. If a deal can be facilitated along these lines—however imperfect it may be—then it may be possible to minimize the problems that inevitably will arise in a post-Assad Syria.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.