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<nettime> Michael Ignatieff: Bosnia and Syria: Intervention Then and Now


Bosnia and Syria: Intervention Then and Now

   Michael Ignatieff
   August 15, 2013

   When state order collapses, as it did in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as it
   is doing now in Syria, chaos unleashes existential fear among all the
   groups who had once sheltered under the protection of the state. Such
   fear makes it difficult to sustain multi-confessional, pluralist,
   tolerant orders when dictatorship falls apart. When state order
   collapses, every confessional or ethnic group asks one question: Who
   will protect us now?

   As Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Druze and Shia ask this question, they
   know the only possible answer is themselves. In a Hobbesian
   situation--a war of all against all--each individual gravitates back to
   the security offered by their clan, sect or ethnic group, or more
   precisely, to those individuals within those groups who offer armed
   protection. This is especially the case when dictatorships collapse,
   for in this case a security vacuum emerges on top of a political one.
   In a state that never permitted mobilization of political parties
   across sectarian, clan, or ethnic divides, none of these groups has
   learned to trust each other in a political order. They may share a
   hatred of the dictator and a fear of what comes next, but not much
   else. Politics has never brought them together before. Now they are
   faced with security dilemmas and they conclude, rationally enough, that
   they can only face these dilemmas alone, in the safety of their own
   group. Such was the case in the former Yugoslavia. Such is the case now
   in Syria.

   In listening to the Syrian opposition figures who have fought
   courageously to create a pluralist, multi-confessional democratic Syria
   upon the ruins of the Assad regime, I am struck by how much they sound
   like Yugoslavs, especially the Bosniaks of the early 1990s. They too
   sought to create a post-ethnic politics after Tito's death. They too
   sought to preserve the complex, multi-confessional heritage of
   tolerance that many in the Syrian opposition are struggling to
   preserve. These ideals are not abstractions. These Syrian patriots
   actually lived a Syrian identity beyond confessional divisions. The
   lesson from Yugoslavia is how difficult it is to sustain these
   connections and a common identity in the face of the fear that
   overcomes all ethnic groups upon the collapse of state order. Common
   identities and loyalties rarely survive the rush to the protection of
   armed groups and the bitterness that results when these groups begin
   killing each other. Neither the Yugoslavs of the 1990s nor Syrians
   today are trapped in sectarian, Islamist `fanatical' or `primitive' or
   `archaic' emotions (to quote some of the condescending terms that
   outsiders used to describe the hatreds that tore Yugoslavia apart).
   What they both lack is time, the experience of democracy, and the
   opportunity--it can take generations--to forge political alliances
   across confessional, sectarian, and clan lines. This was the legacy of
   dictatorship that Tito bequeathed to Yugoslavia and it is Assad's
   poisonous gift to Syria. No wonder then that it has proved agonizingly
   difficult for the Syrian opposition to create a common front against
   the dictator and a political program for their country after Assad is
   defeated, killed, or driven into exile. No wonder then that the chief
   casualty of the Assad regime might just be Syria itself.

   Such an analysis helps us to explain why the anti-Assad opposition has
   been unable to create a believable government in exile linked both to
   commanders at the front and to the municipal authorities in the
   liberated zones. Inside and outside, exiles and front-line fighters
   regard each other with suspicion. There is no effective national
   command of the insurrection and hence no shared political claim to
   defend together. In addition there are a number of fighters, the al
   Nusra Brigade being only one example, for whom the goal is not the
   defense of a multi-confessional Syria but the creation of an Islamic
   caliphate in Arab lands. As Western governments have considered their
   options since the uprising began, they have found it easier to identify
   those they want to lose than those they want to win.

   What they both lack is time, the experience of democracy, and the
   opportunity to forge political alliances across confessional,
   sectarian, and clan lines.

   Intervention will not occur until interveners can identify with a cause
   that democratic electorates in Western states can make their own. In
   the former Yugoslavia it was the Bosniak Sarajevans who understood this
   clearly and helped to mobilize the outrage in Western countries that
   eventually made intervention possible. They had always stood for a
   tolerant, multi-confessional city and in retrospect they did a heroic
   job in making their cause Europe's own. Intervention finally occurred
   in 1995, at least in some measure because international opinion
   identified the Bosniaks as a worthy victim who could be assisted in the
   name of a general defense of `European values.' The massacre in
   Srebrenica and the market bombing in Sarajevo were triggers for
   intervention, but the ideological ground had been prepared in the West
   by Sarajevan suffering in the siege. For the moment, the Syrian
   opposition has failed in making their cause a universal claim.

   The Western intervention in Bosnia--air-strikes on Bosnian Serb
   targets, clandestine assistance to Croatian and Bosniak units who then
   drove Serb minorities from Croatian and Bosnian territory--brought the
   parties to Dayton in October 1995.  There Richard Holbrooke negotiated
   a peace that preserved Bosnia-Hercegovina as a state and forced
   institution sharing upon unwilling enemies. Western intervention did
   not succeed in recreating the inter-ethnic tolerance and accommodation.
   It may only have locked ethnic hostility in place, but it did force
   ethnic groups to deal with each other politically and to accept, over
   time, that limited co-operation was a better option than war. The fact
   remains that no one is dying in Bosnia today.

   When Western governments consider Syrian pleas for intervention, it is
   not Bosnia that comes to their minds, but Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
   The decade of interventions that began after 9/11 appears to deliver
   only lessons of futility and perversity. A decade later both Iraq and
   Afghanistan rank as failed states. In Libya, Qaddafi may be gone, but
   power remains in the hands of militias. Moreover, once Qaddafi's arms
   flowed out into the Sahara to the Tuareg and al Qaeda in the Maghreb,
   they were able to take their uprising against the state of Mali to
   within striking distance of the capital, forcing a French intervention.
   Anyone contemplating intervention in Syria has to prevent unintended
   consequences like these, especially the leakage of Syrian chemical and
   biological weapons stocks to al Qaeda affiliates.

   Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan only partly explain why such domestic
   support as once existed for "humanitarian intervention" has
   disappeared. Life has also changed for the intervening states
   themselves. The interventions in Bosnia--and later in Kosovo--were the
   work of a different time. They were discretionary affairs, small wars
   of choice that were easily paid for by expansive European and North
   American societies whose economies were growing robustly. The political
   confidence that led to these operations depended on budgetary surpluses
   and on euphoric confidence in the superiority of the Western democratic
   model in the unipolar moment that followed the collapse of the Soviet
   Empire. In the current age of sequester, austerity and deficit, this
   confidence has vanished. Europe's political elites are exclusively
   focused on the survival of their economic and political union. The
   United States, likewise, is struggling with deficits, austerity and
   recession. To recession-weary democratic publics, nation-building at
   home seems a more defensible project than nation-building abroad.

   In this climate of reduced expectation, a risk-averse form of Realism
   has taken hold of Western capitals, particularly Washington. Realist
   proponents ask, what interest does the United States actually have in
   intervening in Syria at all? Or more pungently, who cares which bunch
   of thugs runs the country? These are necessary questions and the
   failure to ask them over Iraq in 2002 led to disaster. After Iraq, the
   lesson learned has been no more wars of choice, only wars of necessity.
   The wars of necessity that command reluctant democratic assent in the
   U.S. are now the drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

   It is a sign of the new climate of opinion that when asked about Syria,
   Obama replied, "Why Syria, why not Congo?" The President's rhetorical
   question implied its own answer. Humanitarian suffering alone
   constitutes no clear principle of triage, and it is a president's job
   to do triage, to apportion scarce national resources and scarcer
   political capital to a few vital tasks. Bloodshed and carnage alone
   will not--and should not--trigger the dispatch of the Marines.

   Inside and outside, exiles and front-line fighters regard each other
   with suspicion.

   It follows, unfortunately, that if seventy thousand deaths in the
   Syrian civil war have not created the political will to intervene,
   there is no good reason to suppose that double that number will have
   any more effect. The Lebanese civil war burned for twenty years. It is
   not impossible to anticipate the same result in Syria--and for similar
   reasons. In both Lebanon and Syria, and unlike in Bosnia, external
   Western interveners have been unable to identify a side whose victory
   would further their interests.

   Western policy is navigating between Scylla and Charybdis. Aligning
   with the Russians to prop up Assad would be both unconscionable and
   futile. Invading Syria would reproduce the folly of Iraq. The policy
   alternative in the middle, between these two options, is hard to define
   because the Syrian rebels do not constitute either a united front or a
   believable alternative to the Assad regime. There are no good guys, no
   victims whose cause can be sold to reluctant publics to ennoble a
   humanitarian rescue. So little has been done by Washington to aid the
   rebels that the policy--high on rhetoric, low on action--reads like a
   further indication--if the failure to move Israel and Palestine towards
   peace weren't enough indication already--of reduced American influence
   in the entire Middle East. For the Realists, facing up to the decisive
   limits of American power in the region is the beginning of wisdom. For
   others, Realism looks like abandonment.

   Can it really be true that the United States and its allies in the
   region have no strategic interest in which group of thugs eventually
   rules Syria? Can it really be true that America will suffer no
   consequences in the "Arab street" for standing by while tens of
   thousands of Syrians are killed by their own regime? Is it in America's
   interest for Syria to collapse and become a failed state? To pose these
   as rhetorical questions is to suggest the answers. Syria matters, and
   its future matters not only to itself and its people but to an entire
   region and to Western interests there.

   Apparently after much internal debate the Obama administration has
   concluded that Syria does matter. Lethal and non-lethal aid is being
   funneled to Syrian fighters, through Turkey and through Jordan, under
   the watchful eye of the CIA. Further assistance is reaching the
   fighters through Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The purpose of arms
   transfer is political as much as it is military. Its intent is to give
   the U.S. and its allies some leverage over the groups who receive the
   arms. The leverage, presumably, will be applied to induce the Syrian
   opposition to behave like a government in waiting and to act like one
   when Assad falls. Acting like a government would mean doing whatever it
   can to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria and to prevent a
   wave of revenge killings against minorities, particularly the Alawites.
   Behaving like a government would mean initiating an inclusive
   constitutional process that would give a fractured society a chance to
   heal and come together. Behaving like a government would mean accepting
   U.N. peacekeepers to give the society the chance to hold violence-free

   To recession-weary democratic publics, nation-building at home seems a
   more defensible project than nation-building abroad.

   The question no one can answer is whether external aid has come too
   late to confer any leverage at all, as the rebels close in and the
   final battles for Damascus get underway. The same question hovers over
   the increasing flow of aid to civilian authorities and municipalities
   in the liberated zones of Syria. What leverage can the U.S. hope to
   exert over the post-Assad landscape when aid has been so little and so
   late? The decisive gesture, of course, would be for the United States
   to interdict Assad's use of air power, possibly through the activation
   of the Patriot batteries in Turkey. Thus far, there is no evidence that
   the U.S. is ready to take this step, and its hesitation is a mixture of
   risk aversion and strategic calculation. The Syrian crisis has dug the
   Russians and Chinese ever more deeply into their opposition to any U.N.
   Security Council authorization of the use of force, and so the
   Americans face a lesser-evil choice. Interdiction of Assad's air power
   would collapse the Assad regime, but it would also jeopardize the
   support America needs from these powers in its ongoing duel with the
   Iranians. America will have to decide whether it needs China and Russia
   more than it needs leverage over post-Assad Syria and the new landscape
   in the region.

   Nearly twenty years ago, as the intervention in Bosnia came together,
   the geo-strategic order looked very different. The Russian state was
   near collapse and the Chinese were cautiously edging their way out into
   the international arena. Neither stood in the way of intervention in
   Bosnia. Today, the Syrian crisis lays bare the contours of a very
   different world: divided between authoritarian crony capitalist
   oligarchies that have set themselves against any form of international
   intervention in sovereign states and distracted, deficit-ridden
   democracies that lack the will or capacity to shape even a region as
   strategic as the Middle East. The Syrians huddling under tents in
   Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the families queuing for bread in free
   Aleppo while scanning the sky for planes overhead, the fighters taking
   on a dictator's tanks--they are the ones paying the price for this
   divided world. They are the ones now thinking that they have been
   abandoned. If they win their freedom, they will have no reason to thank
   us and they will have no inclination, as they settle their scores, to
   listen to anything the West, or anyone else, has to say. We should will
   them on to victory, but due to our inability to act consequently in
   their defense, we have reason to wonder whether Syria will survive once
   they win.

   This essay is exerpted from The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader
   Hashemi and Danny Postel and forthcoming from MIT Press

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