The Lowy Interpreter

By Gorana Grgic

Ever since the Obama Administration announced it would provide direct military support to the Syrian opposition, foreign policy analysts have been busy recommending where to go from here. Historical analogies seem to be popular pointers for intervention, with the US response to conflicts in former Yugoslav republics gaining a lot of traction. More specifically, the intervention in Bosnia has been among the most often touted formats to copy.

The proponents of Bosnia-like strategy emphasise the success of military pressure against the Bosnian Serbs, as it led to the Dayton Agreement and a ceasefire in 1995. The three-week NATO-led air campaign that made the warring parties turn toward the negotiating table is what some see as the solution to the ongoing humanitarian nightmare in Syria.

The Bosnia parallels are tempting. Humanitarian conditions in Syria, the regional dynamics of the conflict and US reluctance to intervene are obvious similarities. Just like Bosnia, Syria is a multi-ethnic society which mobilised along religious lines after a region-wide tide of protests for liberalisation.

Moreover, the Syrian conflict falls into the category of an internationalised conflict, since neighbouring and proximate states have become warring parties by providing resources to combatants on both sides. In addition, the unwillingness of the two Democratic US presidents to get involved due to past foreign policy failures — Somalia in Clinton's case, Afghanistan and Iraq in Obama's case — is also striking.

However, there are significant differences that complicate the recommendation that the US should replicate its response to Bosnia.

To understand why, let's first imagine a scenario in which the US did decide to take part in an international military intervention in the form of air strikes. It is not incredible to imagine that such action would cause a strong backlash from the powers supporting al-Assad's regime. Unlike the war in Bosnia, in which the parties involved in the conflict belonged to a single geopolitical bloc, the Syrian case is considerably more perilous. The third-party involvement in Syria reflects the regional Sunni-Shia schism and competition between mid-level powers in the Middle East such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia's open backing of the Syrian Government takes the competition to the level of major global powers.

Even if the warring sides agree to peace talks, the execution and content of such negotiations is going to be much more demanding than the Dayton Agreement ever was. First, the US has made it abundantly clear that President al-Assad has to step down. In that sense, Bosnia was less challenging because there were no attempts at regime change.

Second, even if al-Assad steps down, the heterogeneous nature of the opposition, which includes everyone from democratisers to religious fundamentalists and anti-American militants, means that forming a stable government that is to the West's liking will be an arduous, if not impossible, task. In contrast, the existence of 'only' three warring sides and intra-ethnic unity made it less difficult to negotiate the post-conflict settlement in Bosnia.

Third, the resolution of the Bosnian conflict was largely possible due to a shift in attitude within the Clinton Administration. And Dayton was presented as the final step of the 'endgame strategy'. By contrast, despite the recent changes in Obama's foreign policy team, there are doubts whether such move can bring about a more clear and decisive Syria strategy.

Lastly, the agreement in Dayton was reached due to the proposal to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina into two units – a Muslim-Croat federation and a Bosnian Serb entity. The likelihood of similar arrangement succeeding in Syria is very slim. For one thing, such an arrangement would require significant commitment of peacekeeping troops for an extended period. Furthermore, the idea of partition in the Middle East does not seem like a recipe for success.

Recently, President Clinton implicitly called on Obama to act more decisively in Syria. That's rich, coming from someone who waited for over two years before intervening in Bosnia and only after mass killings occurred. While Obama should definitely take more decisive action, approaching Syria in analogous fashion to Bosnia might be more problematic than some see it.

In order to arrive to an internationally brokered resolution in Syria, there must first be some common ground between the major and regional powers. Unfortunately, as we saw again at the last G8 summit and in the failure to schedule a proposed Geneva peace conference, there is very little to be optimistic about.

This article was originally published at The Lowy Interpreter