x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Lessons from Milosevic show how to push Assad to the brink

The West's attacked the Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 to end the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. What lessons from that 78-day aerial bombardment can be applied to Syria today?

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

With Western powers considering "limited" military strikes against Syria, and with so many "known unknowns" about the effect of a potential attack on the Assad regime, it might be helpful to look back at a similar case in the recent past - Nato's air war against the Serbian forces commanded by Slobodan Milosevic, the "butcher of the Balkans".

Milosevic's crimes had reached a peak during the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, from 1992 to 1995. But the West acted decisively against him only in Kosovo, the last republic seeking independence as Yugoslavia fragmented, four years later in 1999.

Back then Nato, led by the US, started its air war against Milosevic's forces without UN Security Council approval. The aerial war went on for 78 days. A similar situation is probable in Syria, with Russia and China likely to block any UN resolution. Hence, the Kosovo example has become the topic of prolific debates on the legality and legitimacy of humanitarian intervention.

Both the previous regime in Serbia and the current one in Syria are somewhat similar in terms of being primarily one-man shows. The matter in question then is whether the formula of bringing Milosevic to his knees might work for Mr Al Assad as well. Decapitating the leadership could end the Syrian conflict rapidly.

It is worth recalling that when the US president, Bill Clinton, launched air strikes in 1999, it was to prevent further ethnic cleansing of Albanians, and stem a massive refugee exodus. The aim was not explicitly to remove Milosevic.

In Syria, too, regime change is not presented today as the immediate aim of the anticipated strikes. Yet a shift is possible. In 1999, the US changed position, initially ruling out "boots on ground" when a fast surrender from Milosevic was expected, only to later threaten that "all options are on table" for victory.

Although crippling Milosevic's military capacities, until he accepted Nato's terms, was pivotal for the end of violence, weakening him politically by strengthening opposition made his removal plausible. Mr Clinton called for a "democratic transition" (that Milosevic was not to be part of), arguing that the region's democracies would never be safe, as he put it, with "a belligerent tyranny in their midst".

In two important books, The Conflict Over Kosovo: Why Milosevic Decided to Settle When He Did, by Stephen T. Hosmer, and Nato's Air War for Kosovo by Benjamin Lambeth, the authors weigh and analyse the various factors and pressures that influenced Milosevic's decision making.

Hosmer offers a two-fold answer to the question of why Milosevic didn't settle early on, instead holding out for nearly three months. Hosmer argues Miloseveic thought that it was too "dangerous" to capitulate early and that by holding out, he believed he could get better terms from the western allies.

Accepting the western proposal (the Rambouillet Agreement) basically meant losing Serbian hegemony in Kosovo, with a restricted military and police force, it meant a long-term Nato presence, which was seen as a threat to Yugoslavia's sovereignty, and it meant a possible referendum on Kosovo's future. That prospect disgusted Milosevic, as he knew Albanians would win the vote. Kosovo, popularly called "the cradle of Serbian civilisation", has always been a sensitive issue for Serbs and losing it would have meant an unimaginable betrayal, at least at that time.

So Milosevic's strategy was based on the idea that Nato's unity and resolve would be short-lived, and its attacks symbolic. He counted on three assessments.

First, the ethnic cleansing of Albanians from Kosovo was to result in a refugee crisis so large that the bombing would be counterproductive, destabilising neighbouring Macedonia and Albania, as refugees fled across the borders.

Second, while anticipating civilian casualties and Nato air losses from the bombing, Milosevic counted on public support against "foreign enemies". Third, with Russia on his side at the beginning, the Nato bombardment probably seemed to Milosevic like a cold, yet passing, breeze.

Luckily, none of Milosevic's predictions were fully realised. As Milosevic escalated ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Nato became more determined to win. High-precision air strikes, which limited civilian casualties, minimised sceptics' active opposition to the war. Finally, Boris Yeltsin's preference of Russia's own economic interests in maintaining good relations with the West, over "brotherly ties" with Serbia, proved essential for Milosevic's demise.

Besides, contrary to his expectations, after a month or so of air attacks, the popular mood on the ground began to change. Serbians were psychologically exhausted, and increasingly anxious for physical survival. Nato's attacks on "dual-use" targets (both civilian and military), such as electricity and water supplies, proved effective. It seemed so bad that the ruling elite, and even radical nationalists, could not wait for the war's end.

Senior Yugoslav officials cited by The New York Times offered the following reasons for Nato's success in Kosovo- Russian support for Nato's terms, the prospect of more intensive air strikes against Belgrade's bridges and electrical and water systems, and perhaps most important, the understanding that a ground invasion was possible and even imminent.

Furthermore, a UN tribunal had indicted Milosevic in May 1999 for crimes against humanity in Kosovo. This pressured him even more to fear both for his political and physical survival. Gradually, Milosevic came to believe that Nato's terms were the best he could get, while allowing him some political cover, so he capitulated. He lost subsequent elections, and was extradited to the international tribunal in Hague, where he died in 2006.

With all this in mind, let's take a look at Syria. Mr Al Assad is determined to stay in power, as was Milosevic. The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Al Moallem, has struck a defiant tone. "The military effort won't stop, they are dreaming if they want to limit the victories of the armed forces."

Mr Al Assad has been resilient for two years, and will probably continue to be after an attack. Like Milosevic, he will empty military facilities of equipment and personnel, and conceal defections. In parallel, he'll continue conspiratorial propaganda to citizens. Milosevic manipulated ethnic-sectarian tensions, alongside his pompous self-heroisation as the Serb's saviour against imperialist forces. Mr Al Assad has already used both these strategies.

Thus, it will be essential to decipher and monitor Mr Al Assad's psychology during and after any strikes, and employ strategies to persuade him as early as possible to think the game is over.

His cronies should also feel that the end is near - if Syria's oligarchs fear they will lose their privileges, they are more likely to pressure their ruler.

Yet, cruise missile strikes are but one step. They must be followed by diplomatic efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table. Supporting and training more moderates among a fragmented opposition is another condition for any successful post-conflict transition.

In other words, the end of the Assad regime may not necessarily come from air strikes. It is worth recalling that Milosevic survived Nato's bombs. He was finally removed from power the year after, in a democratic election.

While Nato may have stopped the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, it was the Serbian people who finally ended Milosevic's rule, rejecting him at the ballot box - as epitomised by the Serbian resistance slogan directed at Milosevic and chanted in the run-up to the 2000 election: "Gotov je!" or "He is finished!"


Riada Asimovic Akyol is an independent analyst and writer. She is obtaining her doctorate in International Relations at the Galatasaray University in Istanbul

On Twitter: @riadaaa