Syrian Ghosts

What the Balkans can teach us about how to end the conflict in the Levant.

Canadian blue helmets check their weapons, 17 April 1993 near Tuzla's airport, waiting to depart for the Moslem enclave of Srebrenica, where some 30000 refugees hope to be evacuated from. (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Canadian blue helmets check their weapons, 17 April 1993 near Tuzla's airport, waiting to depart for the Moslem enclave of Srebrenica, where some 30000 refugees hope to be evacuated from. (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

There once was a country created by artificially drawn borders. It was dominated by an authoritarian regime that ruled with great brutality, using all of the tools of totalitarian governance — incarceration, impunity, and oppressive internal espionage. Eventually, the state blew apart in a frenzy of religious and ethnic hatred. At one point, 8,000 men and boys were executed over a few days despite the (weak) efforts of the international community. Hundreds of thousands were eventually killed and millions displaced.

Yes, it sounds like Syria. But it was the Balkans in the 1990s.

When Yugoslavia came apart initially, the country’s various ethnic and religious groups tried desperately to hold onto power, carve out territorial claims, create new mini-states, and above all ethnically cleanse their regions. All of this blew up into full-blown war in the early 1990s. Robert D. Kaplan’s brilliant and atmospheric book, Balkan Ghosts, tells the long, bitter story of the region going back centuries. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the similarities with Syria today.

Of course, there are fundamental and important differences. But increasingly, as the international community grapples with the horrific results of the Syrian state’s break up, there are lessons we can take from the long and turbulent road the world had to walk to pacify the Balkans. With the approaching 20th anniversary of the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia, we should think coherently about these.

International engagement is the key. No single nation’s agenda will be able to dominate, no matter how worthy proponents may feel their positions are. In other words, compromises will be necessary. Declaring “red lines” is counterproductive without a fully formed intent to enforce them — a turn the U.S. missed early on with the decision not to intervene more forcefully when chemical weapons were used against the population by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The international community will have to build on the initial meeting last week in Vienna toward some kind of an agreement that will create a new regime in Syria. What are some of the other key Balkan lessons?

Recognize this will be the work of decades. The worst elements of the Balkan conflicts began almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the fragile peace that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Over the next 20 years, a series of skirmishes, massacres, localized conflicts, feuds, ethnic cleansing campaigns, and full-on wars (both in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo) ensured. It took over 15 years of both hard and soft power from the international community to eventually sort out the situation on the ground in Bosnia. And even today there are still serious tensions between Kosovo and Serbia and within Bosnia. Unfortunately, solving the problems in Syria will take at least that long given the underlying Sunni-Shiite conflict overlaid by the atrocities of the past five years.

Yet we cannot be dismayed by initial setbacks, the voices of critics, and the prospect of failure to achieve a swift conclusion. In the Balkans, it took several interventions by the international community — NATO and others, including Russia — before some semblance of order was created. It has taken a further period of time to bring some of the new countries into the European Union, NATO, and other institutions of European stability. The solution to the crisis in Syria will be similarly difficult. We simply need to accept that and not become discouraged.

Be creative in finding solutions. In Yugoslavia, it was clear that the fictional nation would not survive the divisions before it. It also became clear early on that a handful of smaller states would emerge from Yugoslavia’s ashes. We are rapidly approaching that point with Syria. Having fallen off the wall and broken apart like Humpty Dumpty, that country is not going to go back together again.

Instead what will likely emerge is probably an Alawite rump state along the Mediterranean, including Damascus. Alongside it will be a Kurdish enclave in the northwest of the country. And the center, where the Islamic State dominates today, will be Sunni rule. (Let’s hope it is a bastion of moderation.) There may be a federate solution, somewhat like in Iraq today, which could be also be explored.

Use previous examples and find the right negotiators. The Dayton Accords, while far from perfect, included a very capable cast of characters in the negotiators. Take a look Waging Modern War, a book by Gen. Wesley Clark, who helped negotiate the accords alongside Richard Holbrooke, to get a sense of how much personalities matter. And we need look no further than the Iranian nuclear deal — no matter our as-yet incomplete understanding of how it will come out — to appreciate the power of getting the right individuals in the room together to conclude complex international agreements.

In the context of Syria, having deeply experienced negotiating teams will matter. For the United States, people like former Ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Robert Ford come to mind, as do military figures like Gen. John Abizaid, a former commander of U.S. Central Command and a fluent Arabic speaker. Their equivalents representing other nations will be crucial, too. This is obviously not the time for hardline, doctrinaire Russian negotiators; the Iranians would need to send a team ready to build on the nuclear accord with an eye toward the long game; and the Saudis will have to submerge their traditional repulsion at anything resembling a win for Iran.

Recognize that no single agenda will dominate. In Syria today, every country has its own goals: Russia wants Assad securely in power and a return to a status quo ante. The United States and many European allies want Assad immediately remanded to international custody and sent to The Hague to face justice. Saudi Arabia and Iran want to secure domination for their proxies. And so forth.

None of those individual agendas will be able to win out as things are currently configured. That means we need compromise, as distasteful as it will be for every party involved. So if Assad remains in some kind of a power-sharing agreement that is time limited (even if there’s a dacha in Russia waiting at the far-end), the Americans and their allies should consider that in the interests of moving forward and stopping this humanitarian disaster from unwinding further. And let’s remember how the brutal Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic ended up: dying in a cell in The Hague, eventually facing charges.

All of this is terrifically complicated but the Balkans experience shows that it can be done. If the international community does not grasp the nettle of this problem now, we will all look back in utter shame a decade from now over our collective inability to stop the slaughter and massive human displacement. Let us hope we can work together well enough to shape a Balkans-like outcome, as complicated and unfulfilling as it may feel today.

Image credit: PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is <i><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Leaders-Bookshelf-James-Stavridis/dp/1682471799">The Leader's Bookshelf.</a></i>

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