x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The Kosovo precedent has lessons for the Syrian crisis

Is Kosovo in the 1990s the template for how the international community should react to Syria?

Syria and Kosovo bear many similarities, and much history. Above, a victim of an alleged chemical attack receives treatment at a hospital in Aleppo. AP Photo
Syria and Kosovo bear many similarities, and much history. Above, a victim of an alleged chemical attack receives treatment at a hospital in Aleppo. AP Photo

Rhetoric is being ratcheted up in the international community in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians last week by the Assad regime.

The discussion has centred on the Kosovo precedent: the 78-day air war led by Nato against Serbia and Montenegro in 1999, to try to end ethnic cleansing in the province of Kosovo.

But is Kosovo then really a precedent for Syria today?

The two bear many similarities, and much history. They were created out of the same cataclysmic event, the end of the Ottoman Empire in the first decade of the 20th century.

When an empire of that size collapses, the ripple effects spread far and wide, through geography and through time. Many of the hardest conflicts of the modern Middle East can be traced directly to the demise of the Ottoman Empire. That is true even beyond the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire in the last decades just before its collapse stretched far into Europe, pressing up against the Austro-Hungarian empire near what is now Bosnia, and pressing against the Russian empire near modern Romania.

That corner of Europe, east of Italy, west of Romania and south of Hungary was then, and remains now, one of the most complex mix of ethnicities, communities and nations. Europe is, arguably, still dealing with the fallout of the end of the Ottoman empire.

Nestled in the middle of them is Kosovo, a nation only five years old, but for centuries before that a province of various larger entities - the Ottomans, the Italians and the Serbs.

Kosovo is a mainly Albanian region but has never been formally joined to Albania, which it borders. Albanians and Kosovars consider themselves one people, one culture, endlessly divided. The region was incorporated into the Yugoslav republic after the Second World War and stayed there until Yugoslavia started to unravel in the 1990s.

It was then that, as various parts of Yugoslavia started to seek independence, Kosovo did so as well, prompting a bloody response from Slobodan Milosevic.

By 1998, Kosovars were in open conflict with the Serb military. Hundreds had been killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes. As in Syria today, the international community watched, horrified but reluctant to involve themselves in a war that defied easy explanation, that was quickly spreading to neighbouring countries, and where there was no easy political solution.

As in Syria, as well, those backed by the West - then the Kosovo Liberation Army, now the Free Syrian Army - were hardly angels and had carried out brutal crimes of their own. Despite Tony Blair's words back then that this was between "civilisation and barbarity", it was a complex, fluid situation. When the West decided to intervene, it did so in a specific context.

Humanitarian intervention, like all politics, does not occur in a vacuum. The squeamishness of the West over intervention in Syria today is a direct result of the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars came out of an overestimation of what could be sold as humanitarian or liberal intervention.

And, in 1998, the desire to intervene in Kosovo came directly after the failures to intervene in Bosnia and Rwanda in the early 1990s.

The massacre of Srebrenica in 1995 and images of emaciated men in concentration camps reminded Europe of its darkest days in the Holocaust. History was repeating itself, first in the massacres and the camps, and then in what began to look like ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, again by a Serbian military.

When intervention came, it was on the understanding that there would be no "boots on the ground". The US had tried that in Somalia in 1993, with catastrophic results. But the long air-war against Serbia did change the conflict and likely saved thousands of lives. Military intervention was back in fashion, a wave of success that would carry the United States to Baghdad.

What that conflict showed clearly was that intervention is not easy. It is messy, it is expensive, it costs blood and treasure, political capital and political reputations. Under the right circumstances, as in Kosovo, it can do much good. Under others, as in Iraq, it can do enormous harm.

But sometimes it is the only right course of action, the least worst. The world has watched and waited many times as regimes have prepared to slaughter their own people. The world has watched for more than two years as the Assad regime has thrown everything in its arsenal at unarmed civilians.

Intervention in Syria will be bloody, as it was in Kosovo. But like Kosovo in 1999, Syria today is already awash with blood.



On Twitter @FaisalAlYafai