Since the Syrian uprising began on March 15, 2011, there have been persistent echoes of Bosnia. There are some critics of the liberal interventionism specifically on the grounds that their worldview is so heavily coloured by Bosnia—and they make some valid points—but the analogy has been inescapable in Syria.
The image of a Muslim population being attacked by a fanatical regime presenting itself to the West as a bulwark against Islamic zealots was an obvious analogy. Then there were the massacres of the Assad regime against the people of Houla, Qubair, Tremseh, Haswiya, Bayda and Baniyas, an orchestrated campaign of religious cleansing to carve out a pure Alawite State on the coast that the regime could retreat to if it lost Damascus. In Bosnia, the conflict brought the term “ethnic cleansing” to a wider audience, describing Slobodan Milosevic’s scheme to create a Greater Serbia cleared of all non-Serbs. And in May 2013, the Syrian war got its Stari Most moment. Almost exactly twenty years before, Catholic/Croat forces besieging the city of Mostar shelled this ancient bridge until it crumbled into the Neretva River below. In Deir Ezzor City, the famous Suspension Bridge built during the French Mandate fell into the Euphrates after the regime shelled its foundations.
The loudest echoes, however, are to be heard in the West, with its cowardice and evasions to avoid doing anything to help the victims of mass-murder. Then as now the West tried to peace process its way out of the slaughter. Then as now the West refused to draw red lines it was prepared to enforce, emboldening the killers and demoralising the victims, giving time and space to the murderers and opening the road to even worse horrors still. The luck of the Bosnians was that Richard Holbrooke was at the President’s ear. The Dayton Accords are not the success they are made out to be: they not only came too late but were implemented too soon. What the Bosnians needed was what they had needed all along: weaponry and air cover to roll back the advances of aggression. Dayton legitimised the conquests of the aggressors—locking in the present dysfunctional de facto partition—and halted the counter-attack. But at least the killing was stopped: three weeks of air strikes brought to an end a three-year war. In the Obama years, as the White House has increasingly centralised foreign policy and put it in the hands of politicos rather than national-security professionals, Holbrooke’s views were found to be too near to the pre-Obama consensus, so he was sidelined.
I can remember working out in late 2012, in the run-up to the American Election, before which I knew no deliverance would come for the Syrians, that if we were on the Bosnia timetable—the war beginning in April 1992 and the air strikes arriving in August 1995—then it would be July 2014 before an intervention came. I distinctly remember the foolish thought: “The Obama administration will never allow it to drag out that long.” Even then the furies being stoked by the murderous regime and its Iranian patron were bleeding out and destabilising the whole region. The death toll was 30,000 at that time, though I knew it could—as it has—top 100,000 (and now 220,000) and President Obama would not care. His dreadful interview wondering aloud how he was to weigh-up the Syrian horrors with the long-running crisis in the Congo was then in the future but one had received the message plainly enough in any case: on the humanitarian case for intervention it would be whataboutery, and on the strategic side it would be wilful blindness and obfuscation. Still, there was something I thought the Syrians would be able to count on: the tendency of these homicidal regimes to go too far.
But when the Syrian war’s Srebrenica arrived in the form of the mass-slaughter with chemical weapons of mass destruction in East Ghouta on August 21, 2013, there was nobody around Obama to fulfil the role of Holbrooke. National Security Advisor Susan Rice worried that to do something to halt the killing in Syria would consume the President’s domestic agenda. Denis McDonough was the Chief of Staff and he believed a war between al-Qaeda and the Hizballah (Iran) in Syria would decrease the numbers of both, rather than destroy the remnants of the middle-ground and polarise the conflict between these two forces. Little wonder that when Obama confided his doubts about his plan to strike at the Bashar tyranny to McDonough there was no resilience in the man; no understanding that the United States cannot walk this far out in front before the gaze of the world and then pull back without catastrophic consequences.
President Obama first delayed the strikes by sending the matter to Congress—French jets were on the tarmac ready for take-off when they got the message of this climb-down—and then the strikes were abandoned altogether when the Russians completely outplayed Obama. Despite the President’s professed belief that this deal came about because of pressure brought to bear by his threat of force, the reality is that he was going to lose the vote in Congress and everybody knew it. (Even deputising AIPAC did him no good, shattering the myth once and for all that the “Jewish Lobby” can make America do anything America doesn’t already want to do.) Obama’s real transmitted message was that if somebody could find him a cover—however thin—he would stand down from his threat. The “deal” relegitimised the dictator, made him a partner in disarmament (thus revoking the ostensible regime-change policy of the U.S.), made the U.S. complicit in the savage campaigns against as-Safira and Qalamoun, which the regime claimed had to be cleared if it was going to get the chemicals to the ports to remove them, and became the very “license to kill with conventional weapons” the U.N. Secretary-General reassured one and all it would not be.
The U.S. stepping back from the strikes nearly destroyed the moderate rebels and convinced some of the more Salafi-inclined ones that they had better find a different patron, uniting them into the Islamic Front, which openly rejected secularism and democracy. The statement was mostly intended as an f-you to Washington and to placate a rising tide of Islamic extremism, but the damage was done, and the main moderate institution working with the West was finished, now formally.
This all seemed to take President Obama quite by surprise. Having decided that some uses of weapons of mass destruction were “ordinary,” which the U.S. had no interest in stopping or punishing, and then having finally found a WMD attack that wasn’t ordinary and which it was in U.S. interests to punish, but not if the Kremlin thought quickly enough, the President was astonished to find “that Russian, Iranian, and Chinese officials were discussing how weak the U.S. now looked“. As in the Balkans two decades earlier, humanitarian and strategic concerns were more closely allied than anybody apparently wanted to admit.
The main lesson of Bosnia was that all of the dire predictions about intervention became true without it and the options and outcome got worse with time. It was worried that an intervention might drag in outside powers, namely the Russians, but not intervening dragged in outside powers on the side of the killers (sound familiar?) Intervention in Bosnia would gain us the lasting enmity of the peoples of the region, it was said, but both in Bosnia and more obviously in Kosovo, where we intervened soon enough to prevent the descent into mass-killing, intervention gained us lasting friends and helped defeat forces whose friendship we were never going to have, and shouldn’t want. In Syria, the Obama administration called off the Bush administration’s ideological assault on the regime’s legitimacy and its warning that it was on borrowed time in favour of “engagement,” which meant making-nice with a dictator who murdered U.S. soldiers and turning their backs on one of the most pro-Western populations in the region. In Bosnia, the foreign jihadists were allowed the time to implant themselves and pose as the only people who came to save the country, with Wahhabism becoming a force in the country in the way it had not been pre-war. The same has now come to pass in Syria. In both cases, the West worried loudly about the presence of jihadists in the victims’ ranks when there were none, gave the jihadists the time to arrive, and then used their presence to justify non-intervention—which led to the rapid growth of the jihadists’ numbers. (In Kosovo, where the population had the choice of the mujahideen or NATO, it rejected the holy warriors altogether, and the post-war turned out rather differently.)
With the looming fight for Aleppo perhaps spelling the end of the Syrian revolution, and al-Qaeda (Jabhat an-Nusra) preparing to openly war on the rebellion, perhaps the cause is now lost. Perhaps the regime and its ostensible takfiri foes will get their way and face the world with a nightmare choice of Assad (Iran) or the Islamic State. But fatalism has a way of making these situations worse; the clever-sounding reasons for staying out sound like nothing so much as a means of running down the clock. If the present situation in Syria is what comes of listening to the anti-warriors, might it not be time for the hawks to get a hearing?