It’s 1999 in Syria

Kosovo's foreign minister calls for an international intervention to halt the killing in Syria.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

PRISTINA, Kosovo — The heartbreaking news and images coming from Syria — civilians being killed, fleeing from their homes or finding their lives destroyed at the hand of Bashar al-Assad’s regime — are resurrecting agonizing memories for those of us who lived through Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaigns in Kosovo in the 1990s.

The United Nations must urgently investigate the recent attack in Damascus, where chemical weapons were allegedly used by the regime to kill as many as 1,800 people. If confirmed, the attack would represent the world’s biggest chemical weapons assault in the last decade. It would also underscore the fact that a political transition cannot be expected with a regime that does not spare the most barbaric means to kill its innocent citizens.

As a statesman on behalf of Kosovo, but also as a citizen who has seen death and destruction at the hands of a madman, I can say that it is time for the international community to step in — as it did in 1999 in the Western Balkans — to end this civil war in Syria.

Human rights are a core foreign-policy objective for Kosovo — and for good reason. Kosovo’s horrifying experience with Milosevic resulted in thousands of civilians killed, many of them massacred. From the beginning, my people and government, seeing kinship, have supported the aspirations of the Syrian people for freedom and democracy.

But the support of a small country like ours is not nearly enough. The U.N. Security Council has stood idly by as more than 100,000 people have perished in Syria since 2011. Kosovars know all too well the cost in human lives brought by such a wait-and-see approach. Although Kosovo has supported the efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint Special Representative of the U.N. and Arab League for Syria, to find a political solution to the crisis, Assad has given no quarter.

It’s time for something new in Syria. Or rather, it’s time for an old idea that has worked before.

The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 serves as a model for our allies in the West and the Arab world to end Syrian suffering. Back then, humanitarian intervention by the international community not only brought an end to ethnic cleaning, but it also showed that the classical idea of state sovereignty cannot be used as a shield to justify repressive policies and crimes against humanity.

The intervention in Kosovo also affirmed that, even without the mandate of the U.N. Security Council, countries should act to prevent regimes from abusing human rights. As a country that today enjoys freedom and democracy thanks to NATO action, we are strong supporters of the idea that sovereignty is not a right, but a responsibility. Speaking from experience, the time has come for the international community to offer protection to the people of Syria.

The Syrian crisis is a case in which the international community’s "responsibility to protect" civilians, a principle endorsed by more than 150 members of the U.N. General Assembly in 2005, should justifiably be invoked. The regime has committed serious crimes against humanity and has failed to protect civilians. Close cooperation between the West and the Arab world in Syria should bring about the end of Assad’s rule and facilitate a political transition that paves the way for democracy in Syria.

Military intervention to stop the killing is the short-term piece of this puzzle. For the longer view, the world should draw inspiration from the historic April 19, 2013, accord between Kosovo and Serbia as an example of what peace can look like between previously hostile combatants. My government and the Serbian government have signed a declaration — and taken concrete steps toward — normalizing relations. Fourteen years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to foresee the possibility of this momentous step.

Before that step, however, there were many others, and the NATO intervention was the first to turn the tide. Then the U.N. Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) took up residence to help stabilize the political and economic situation. Its presence allowed us to begin to rebuild our political and civil society institutions. The NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), meanwhile, helped keep the peace in a fragile region of the country at a delicate time. International war criminals, including Milosevic, were also brought to justice in The Hague.

We took the final step toward normalizing relations with our neighbor with the help of Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, who brokered this year’s historic accord. In doing so, Ashton showed tremendous courage, put her reputation on the line, and devoted a significant portion of her packed portfolio to helping us reach that agreement.

We should remember that Syria’s transition to democracy will be long and difficult, but we in Kosovo are convinced that, with the support of the West and the Arab world, it can be achieved. My country, though small and young, is poised to help in the days and years after Assad’s regime falls. We can use our recent and successful experience building our own state to help the Syrians rebuild theirs. We adhered to three key principles: democracy, multi-ethnicity, and secularism. These principles form the bedrock of the state of Kosovo’s character, and we are convinced that they can be applied in Syria to accommodate its different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups.

That is what Kosovo can offer. But what about the rest of the world? The West and the Arab world together should make clear that the territorial integrity of Syria is guaranteed, just as KFOR did for Kosovo. This will ensure that different groups in Syria can focus on creating a climate of cooperation that will lead to a power-sharing government under which all citizens of Syria feel equal and free.

Syrians deserve to live in a peaceful and democratic Syria. My country is ready to help, but first we need the international community to do what they did for us 14 years ago — mobilize political will and military might to bring down the regime of a brutal thug.

Enver Hoxhaj is minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Kosovo.