Syrian Peace and the Bosnia Precedent

Could the Dayton agreement be a model for ending the Syrian civil war?

In a situation as complex as Syria’s, the search for parallels is understandable. Indeed, the current effort led by Secretary of State John Kerry to reach a diplomatic settlement draws its inspiration from the Dayton Agreement, which ended another seemingly intractable civil war in Bosnia. Concerted diplomacy backed by air strikes achieved a settlement within a matter of months in Bosnia. So, could the Bosnia model end the bloodshed in Syria?

On the surface, the similarities are compelling. As President Obama has done in Syria, President Clinton strenuously avoided becoming involved militarily in Bosnia. In both situations, an arms embargo helped freeze into place a substantial advantage for the dominant regime. Fearing a quagmire if it got involved, the Clinton administration was ambivalent even about its own proposal to lift the arms embargo and conduct air strikes, and was palpably relieved when European capitals rejected it. Washington then, as now, emphasized humanitarian relief for the million plus refugees and internally displaced, while some arms shipments went through to the beleaguered Bosniak Muslims behind the scenes (ironically, some of these shipments were facilitated by Iran.)

Then, something changed. By 1995, the administration realized that the cost of inaction in Bosnia, particularly the potential damage with NATO allies, was greater than the risk of intervention. Meanwhile, U.S. investments in the Croat and Muslim armies began to pay off. The two launched a ground offensive later that year that combined with NATO air strikes to send the Serbs into panicked retreat. With the situation on the ground closely aligned with a proposed fifty-fifty territorial split under the peace plan, the United States launched the talks in Dayton, Ohio that ended the war.

Recognizing the growing risks in Syria—which are far more serious than anything seen in the Balkans—the administration has thrown itself into the effort to forge a diplomatic settlement. But the effort is already running into obstacles. Moscow just announced that it is impossible to convene the Syria conference this month, as was the goal. This is not surprising. What’s missing is the crucial precondition to diplomacy in Bosnia: changing the situation on the ground. It was Washington’s build up of Croat and Muslim forces, along with NATO air strikes and tightening sanctions, that brought the humbled Serbs to the negotiating table.

In Syria, the dynamics are moving in the opposite direction. The Assad regime has advanced in strategically important locations in the areas around Homs that link Damascus to its most important supply routes along the coast while the opposition, suffering from a lack of resources, has struggled to maintain control of the main Aleppo-Damascus highway, thus reopening ground resupply routes to the regime. Assad has also been able to rely more directly on Hezbollah, whose deeper involvement has provided reinforcements to key battle areas, including Qusayr, a key town in Homs province, revitalizing Assad’s forces. To make matters worse, the opposition is increasingly led by radical Islamists, some of whom have allied with al-Qaeda, further strengthening the regime’s narrative that it is fighting “terrorists.”

This raises the question whether the U.S.-Russian peace conference—even if it succeeds in the daunting task of bringing the parties to the table—will achieve anything. The war in Bosnia saw many international parleys in Geneva that led nowhere. There were dozens of ceasefires, most of which immediately dissolved. If a “new Dayton” peace conference over Syria is to achieve a settlement, or even a lasting ceasefire, then the situation on the ground will have to change, concentrating the minds of President Assad and his inner circle. This is a far more difficult task given the regime’s intense personal investment in the conflict. By contrast, the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic proved to be an opportunist, who by 1995 was willing to trade the interests of hard-line Bosnian and Croatian Serbs for sanctions relief.

Washington’s hope is that Moscow will intensify the pressure on Assad, but it is unlikely the Syrian President will kowtow to the Russians. He has far more stalwart and significant backers in Iran. And it is unlikely that Moscow will turn up the heat on Assad to the boiling point. Russia is far closer to the Assad regime than it ever was to the Serbs, who mostly served as an occasional foil to NATO and widening American influence in the Balkans.

While the Clinton administration was able to rapidly unify the pliable Bosniak Muslims and Croats, Washington confronts a fractious opposition in Syria over whom it has limited influence. Secretary Kerry struggled to get key opposition leaders, who are disappointed with U.S support, to meet him in Rome earlier this year. Exacerbating the task, regional actors like Turkey and Qatar, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan on the other, have each backed favorites in the opposition. The fact that the United States, in a nod to Russia, has softened its demands on Assad will not make it any easier to herd the opposition towards a unified position. Indeed, with radical Islamists ascendant among opposition forces, it is questionable whether any deal that the regime would accept at the moment would be respected by the most prominent opposition forces on the ground.

Muddled Sectarian Divisions