x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The Bosnia lesson: intensifying war in Syria almost certain

Only offensives forced Bosnia's Serbs to make concessions. Syria need not duplicate that pattern to the letter, but someone needs to catch Mr Al Assad's attention and compel him to reconsider.

While the conflict in Syria today and the one in Bosnia two decades ago are different, they have provoked similar debates internationally. That's not surprising; in both, a powerful military force abused civilians defended by inadequately armed groups.

The war in Bosnia, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, followed the breakdown of the Yugoslav federation, and was essentially fought over territory. The uprising in Syria, in contrast, has become a sustained effort by a growing number of Syrians to be rid of a dictatorial regime. However, as the international community grapples with how best to protect Syrian civilians, the Bosnian experience offers instruction.

A more obvious illustration of this fact is the continuing discussion over whether to arm deserters who have joined the Free Syrian Army. In its final statement, the Friends of Syria summit in Tunis last weekend carefully sidestepped the issue. Irritated by the timorousness of the participants, Saudi Arabia and Qatar quickly made it plain that they would dispatch weapons to the Syrian opposition.

The United States has distanced itself from such an option, but is unlikely to hinder it. This replicates the dissension during the Bosnia war, when members of Congress and later President Bill Clinton supported "lift and strike" - lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia that had handed the better-armed Bosnian Serbs an advantage over the Muslims. When the embargo was removed, the Muslims were able to regain the initiative. Today, prominent figures in Congress, including Senator John McCain, are insisting that Syria's rebels be armed.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might not fully disagree. The brutality of President Bashar Al Assad's repression in Homs could well represent a Srebrenica moment for them. Srebrenica is the town that was overrun in July 1995 by the Bosnian Serbs, where some 8,000 Muslims were slaughtered. The appalling crime turned the mood decisively against the Bosnian Serbs, particularly in Washington.

If the Syrian opposition gets the proper weapons, it will be in a better position to defend key territories. In another echo of the Bosnian war, the insurgents may conceivably set up safe areas. In Bosnia, it was the United Nations upholding such areas, until the UN failed to protect Srebrenica and a second enclave at Zepa. In Syria, the dynamics are different. It's the Free Syrian Army that would have to establish safe areas - to host an alternative Syrian government, act as rallying points for deserters and refugees, and serve as conduits for medical assistance.

However, the creation of safe areas poses considerable risks for the international community. As in Benghazi, but also to avert new Srebrenicas, those siding with the Syrian rebels would inevitably have to guarantee the security of these zones. As a consequence, the areas could become levers employed by the Syrian opposition to increase military backing from outside countries, drawing them into what could possibly metastasise into a full-scale civil war.

If the Syrian conflict develops into a war for land, we might witness an even eerier reminder of Bosnia: the formation of ethnic statelets. The Alawite-dominated Assad regime has been functioning on parallel tracks in the past months. It has sought to reimpose its writ over Syria as a whole, while simultaneously facilitating a substitute plan, if one becomes necessary, allowing Alawites to fall back to their communal heartland in the coastal areas and mountains of north-western Syria.

The assault on Homs, like the efforts to secure nexus points along the eastern edges of the Alawite mountains, at Jisr Al Shughour and Kfar Kalakh, can be understood against a backdrop of this dual strategy. However, unlike the Bosnian endgame, where the agreement signed at Dayton divided Bosnia-Herzegovina into a federation along ethnic lines, a similar outcome in Syria would be disastrous. For one thing, an Alawite statelet, to survive, would need to ethnically cleanse the coastal cities, where substantial numbers of Sunnis live. No country would dare legitimise such action by giving it formal recognition.

More importantly, the break-up of Syria into ethnic or sectarian entities is a red line for Syria's neighbours. Turkey, Iraq and Iran would then have to confront Kurdish national aspirations; Sunnis in Iraq might seek to break away from their Shia-dominated state; Syria's atomisation could have dangerous repercussions in Lebanon; and so on. Any Alawite statelet scheme would be made to fail, but it would also be monstrously traumatic.

The grim reality is that Bosnia showed how a military dimension became necessary to contain Bosnian Serb dominance. The notion that it would be a mistake to escalate the fighting in Syria is, in a way, almost irrelevant. The intransigence of the Assad regime and its allies in Russia and China, no less than the inability of the United States, the European powers and the Arab states to impose a political solution, make intensifying combat inevitable. Unless Russia changes tack and helps mediate Mr Al Assad's unavoidable exit, the battle over Syria risks turning into a ferocious proxy war.

Only offensives by the Muslims and the Croats, in tandem with Nato bombing, forced Bosnia's Serbs to make concessions. Syria need not duplicate that pattern to the letter, but someone needs to catch Mr Al Assad's attention and compel him to reconsider. It's not at all certain that sanctions and peaceful protests alone can do this. Bosnia will be studied carefully in the comings months. It should be, to ensure the violence in Syria is ultimately shaped by a framework of negotiation.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut