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Foreign Policy

Alan Mendoza: Why Bosnia holds lessons for Syria today

Dr Alan Mendoza is the Executive Director of the transatlantic international affairs think tank The Henry Jackson Society. Follow Alan on Twitter

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of Operation Deny Flight, a NATO mission to operate a no-fly zone over the skies of war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. The most powerful military alliance in the world had become the military enforcement agency of choice for a United Nations baffled by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in a corner of Europe where small nations were struggling for freedom from the remnants of a multi-ethnic state that by now existed in name only: Yugoslavia.

First Slovenia, then Croatia and finally Bosnia tried to slip the shackles imposed by an increasingly desperate Serbia to keep a federation together where the latter was the dominant party. And while Slovenia was able to escape with relative ease, in the latter two cases Serbia and its proxies – Croatian Serbs in Croatia and Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia – unleashed military conflicts that became marked by the worst kinds of abuses that European soil had witnessed since the Holocaust. A generation of politicians who had sworn “never again” wrung their hands while human rights violations, ethnic cleansing and genocide played out in front of them. Failing to understand that what was unfolding before them was naked aggression by state orchestrated forces, they chose instead to trot out comfortable mantras about civil wars, ethnic faultlines and the fundamental insolubility of the conflict as reasons not to intervene.

Every now and again however, the prick of conscience over the appalling humanitarian crisis at hand forced the international community into action. The seminal UN Security Council Resolution that provided the legal cover for NATO participation, UNSCR 816, was one such example, and banned flights by both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft over Bosnia. Despite the overwhelming preponderance of heavy weaponry deployed by the Bosnian Serb forces, the UN had seen fit to maintain an arms embargo against all sides in the Bosnian conflict, which seriously disadvantaged the mainly Muslim Bosnian government forces. The no-fly zone was designed to be a halfway house measure to assuage international guilt about the effects of the arms embargo. This had seen Bosnian Serbs – and Bosnian Croats on a separate military front – pin down Bosnian government forces and commit atrocities.

Importantly, UNSCR 816 was passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, allowing for the use of “all measures necessary” to ensure compliance with the ban. Although not imagined by international leaders at the time of its inception, in due course, its provisions would be extended to include the provision of close air support for UN troops on the ground in Bosnia and the carrying out of coercive air strikes against targets in Bosnia. In 1994, this would lead to the first combat engagement in NATO’s history – an air battle over Banja Luka in February – and NATO’s first ever bombing of ground targets in an operation near Goražde that April. Ultimately, NATO air forces would help bring the war to an end through a massive bombing campaign in August and September 1995. Bosnia remains at peace today. Its union may not be an entirely happy one, but the canards that stated that its ethnic groupings were doomed to internecine warfare have been disproved.

Subsequent British Prime Ministers learned the lessons of Bosnia well. Tony Blair and David Cameron both employed hard power in support of humanitarian objectives in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Libya, understanding that to stand by idly in the face of large scale human rights abuses is against the British national interest. Values must play a role in our global outlook if we are to maintain the moral suasion to influence outcomes overseas.

Lessons for Today

And yet there is a situation eerily reminiscent of Bosnia in the world today: Syria. For Milosevic and his proxies, read Assad and his. For Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, substitute Sunnis, Allawites, Kurds and a handful of religious minorities thrown in for good measure. Mass atrocities have taken place. There is an arms embargo in operation with only one side having access to heavy weaponry. Familiar arguments about civil wars and internecine ethnic bloodbaths are repeated ad nauseam.

Of course Syria does not form a perfect analogy with Bosnia – most obviously, and unlike in the Bosnian case, there is huge uncertainty about who the freedom fighters really are and whether the extreme Islamists among their number will inevitably come to dominate secular liberals. But we do know this from Bosnia: initial Western reluctance to intervene opened the door for malign ideologies from Iran and Saudi Arabia to try and take advantage of our absence from the fray. Likewise, delaying our intervention in Syria will win us no support among the freedom fighters there, will weaken our liberal and democratic friends, and lead to a collapse of our moral authority. We were lucky that we addressed this failing in time in Bosnia. There will inevitably be a post-Assad regime in place in Syria sometime soon – wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if we were able to meet it from a position of moral and military strength and with a chance to influence its future, than one of weakness?


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