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
Two other factors are missing in Syria that proved crucial to ending the war in Bosnia: a sense of exhaustion, and widespread ethnic separation. While the population in bitterly contested Syrian urban centers like Aleppo may be deeply fatigued, it is not clear that even after two years of war that there is a critical mass of war weary citizens, either among the opposition or government supporters, who are ready to throw in the towel. Syria’s population is more than five times larger than Bosnia’s, diminishing the relative impact of the comparable number of casualties and displacements, horrifying as this suffering has been..
Bosnia immortalized the term “ethnic cleansing,” as Serbs herded hundreds of thousands of Muslims out of areas necessary to create a Serb proto-state. In Syria, ethno-sectarian cleansing has been far less systematic and far less prominent a feature of the conflict. This is mainly because “cleansing” holds a far different and less central purpose. Rather than expel Sunnis from Alawi strongholds like Baniyas, the regime exploits and creates sectarian divisions to shore up support, recruit fighters and exploit sectarian tensions. As the rebels close in on the coast, the regime hopes that such massacres will deepen sectarian tensions and pit Sunni and Alawites against each other, thereby convincing the Alawites they need to fight alongside the Assad regime for their survival.
The growing perception that Assad is creating an Alawi stronghold by cleansing Sunnis from Syria’s coastal region is not supported by the evidence to date. Population movements are complex in Syria; in some cases, opposition supporters have actually moved their families into government-controlled territory for the simple reason that it is safer—a phenomenon that did not exist either in the Balkans or in neighboring Iraq, which also saw massive sectarian expulsions. While creating an Alawi state might be attractive to Iranian proxies and Alawi militias, it would represent failure for the regime. The Alawites have been fighting to get out of the mountains and into Damascus ever since Syria’s independence. The fact that Assad has done little to lay the groundwork for an Alawite state suggests that he has no intention of leading his people back to those mountains.
If Assad is not pursuing a citadel like the Republika Srpska for Alawites, then the primary basis for the Dayton settlement—the near fifty-fifty division of territory—disappears. Instead, cutting a peace agreement in Syria will require much more subtle approach to supplying group security in a country with relatively mixed population centers ripped open by sectarian fighting. Indeed, the singular focus on Bosnia-style population separation has obscured potential openings to exploit such as burgeoning divisions within the Alawi community.
Owning the Problem
Implementing an eventual Syria peace agreement will be far more challenging than in Bosnia, where the fear of NATO peacekeeping forces, led by a U.S. commander, was near wholesale, and where the immediate security task was separating the warring factions along clearly defined lines (as noted, the population was already largely separated.) In the zeal for diplomacy in Syria, the obligation to support an eventual agreement with American boots on the ground should not be forgotten.
The attendant risks— improvised explosive devices and suicide terrorism—will put a premium on getting an array of regional actors like Turkey and Jordan, who bring both cultural savvy and substantial experience in UN peacekeeping, to take a prominent role in any peace implementation effort in Syria. Russia, too, can play an instrumental confidence-building role with the Alawite community and others who have supported the regime. But, as in Bosnia, U.S. leadership will be essential in large part to prevent squabbling among regional players, each of whom has backed favorites in the conflict.
In sum, the parallel between Syria and Bosnia is highly useful—not as a ready template for ending the war so much as for understanding the prerequisites to achieving that goal. To achieve a Dayton-like outcome, diplomacy will require change on the battlefield. That means that there is probably no avoiding some degree of military involvement, either in the form of supplying weapons, or preferably, intensified training of opposition forces along with sustained air strikes that decimate the regime’s core military assets.