MUNICH — After 10,000 deaths, several months of hesitation and restraint in the West, sanctions and diplomatic offensives, the despot goes one step too far. It means the international community can no longer look the other way. The calculation that the costs of doing nothing are lower than the costs of intervention reveals itself to have been flat wrong.
Suddenly everything moves quickly: just days after a massacre, there is rhetoric and a path toward military action is cleared. A couple of weeks later, NATO intervenes, brings the despot back into line and even forces him to accept a peace agreement.
I’m not talking about Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and his government’s likely use of chemical weapons. No, the event I'm recalling is what happened in Srebrenica in July 1995, when 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred at the hands of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Now too it seems that the use of chemical weapons have, in Syria’s case, also made the calls for intervention louder. Though a peace agreement, like the one negotiated for Bosnia in November 1995, is still far away for Syria.
Opponents of intervention in Syria have often invoked the sobering experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are of course correct that international community should exercise extreme caution when considering whether military intervention should be used.
But we should not forget the lessons of the 1990s and of the war in the Balkans. Under certain circumstances it is necessary to use military means to get to the negotiating table and force peace. The Syrian conflict is more reminiscent of the situations in Bosnia or Kosovo than Iraq or Afghanistan.
Still, there are indeed greater risks in Syria than there were in the Balkans in the 1990s. Opponents of Syrian intervention have warned that the conflict could spread, and now, thanks to our inaction, the conflict is indeed spreading quickly. Syria is a failed state with chemical weapons in the heart of the world’s least stable region, and it has become a deployment hub for jihadists from all over the world.
A regional proxy war, with its religious and political components, would have consequences far from Syria’s borders — and would likely have consequences for the future of all of its neighbors, for the Iranian nuclear conflict and for the revolutions in the Middle East. More than 100,000 people have died, more than one million children have fled, and now weapons of mass destruction are being used: That is a crime of pure evil.
The argument that the war in Syria has to bleed itself dry has proved to be both morally irresponsible and absolutely wrong politically.
The Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian war in 1995 was possible because Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs were faced with a new reality and suddenly had an interest in a negotiated agreement. The Croats had started winning ground and the NATO operation “Deliberate Force” had demonstrated that the West was serious. In other words, despite its weaknesses, the agreement in Dayton gave Bosnia-Herzegovina a way to find peace, and it was only possible because of the serious threat and limited use of military weapons.
This is also valid in Syria. From a position of strength, where he can at least repel attacks, the Assad regime is unlikely to be ready to make the necessary concessions. As long as Assad is convinced that he can improve his position or even win the whole war outright, he will prefer to keep fighting. The international community has to undermine this calculation if it wants to find a political solution.
The test of whether an intervention promises success starts with defining its goals and measures to be used. Public remarks in the past couple of days have suggested that limited airstrikes would be the likely response. In that case, the goal would be to make it clear that a red line actually means something.
Such a limited attack is unlikely to really change the power dynamics in Syria that have been preventing meaningful negotiation. The ideal situation, in which Assad is so weakened that the parties involved in the conflict come to Geneva to look each other in the eye and negotiate a solution is, unfortunately, still unlikely.
Any intervention that is not sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council would be offensive to some, especially Russia. Without Moscow there will be no negotiated agreement in Syria. So any intervention has to be accompanied by high-level diplomatic efforts with and around Russia, in which the West makes it clear that it will be prepared to make distasteful compromises, such as considering a future for a part of the Assad regime.
The West should also be able to say that it is ready for (almost) anything, to find common ground with Russia. Refusing to talk is sending the wrong message. It has never been more important for Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama to find a compromise between themselves. Otherwise, we will have the worst possible outcome: The war in Syria escalates further, and the trust between Russia and the West is destroyed.
Military strikes that are nothing more than punishment for the use of chemical weapons would also be meaningless. The strikes should have clearly defined political objectives, and in the best-case scenario, they should be the first step toward a peace agreement. In 1993, then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher characterized Bosnia as “a problem from hell,” unsolvable because the parties to the conflict hated each other so much. Two years later, after Srebrenica and the international intervention that followed, a peace agreement was signed. Though Dayton was patently unsatisfying, there has been no more shooting since. That is the ultimate lesson from Bosnia for our leaders today.