Syria’s civil war is emerging as a US foreign policy crisis and there is a gnawing feeling of “been there, done that in Iraq and Afghanistan.” While it was probably a mistake, last year President Obama drew a red line that would trigger greater U.S. involvement if Syrian President Assad used chemical weapons. There is some evidence Assad did.
Empty threats risk future threats not being taken seriously and the president has been under pressure to make good on his threat. At least Obama is right in being cautious now. All of his options carry risks. Ethnic civil wars like the one in Syria are the tar sands of outsider intervention; easy to get into and difficult to get out of , and risk spreading conflicts beyond borders.
The New York Times reported Israel wiped out Syria’s main chemical weapons facility and long-range missile storehouses last week. While the strikes served Israel’s purpose to take out Syria’s arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, it may also have made the chemical weapons redline issue moot. No one is claiming Israel’s strikes were a proxy for making good on a U.S. threat, but it served that purpose, too.
Military aid to the rebels and no fly zones should still be on the table because they promote an end that serves our national interests. Israel’s air strikes demonstrated the weakness of Syria’s air defense and the feasibility of enforcing no fly zones. Boots on the ground have wisely been ruled out by about everyone in the US. We learned some hard lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The situation on the ground has changed since last year, with Al Qaeda- like organizations hijacking many of the rebel groups and with few moderate forces left to arm. Our weapons could fall into the wrong hands, making the situation more dangerous. We can only hope our intelligence assessments are accurate.
Giving military aid and enforcing no fly zones could be the catalyst to get Russia to force Assad to step down, since military aid to the rebels could tip the stalemated conflict against Assad. The final outcome is still mostly in Russia’s hands. Assad is their client. Russia’s reluctance to force Assad out is understandable. The fall of Assad could put Al Qaeda like rebels in charge, closer to their borders.
Russia may be gambling that our reluctance to get involved will not change. Beware. We found ourselves eventually caught up in the Balkan Wars in the 1990’s as the former Yugoslavia broke up. Media coverage of ethnic cleansing , fleeing refugees, and the shelling of Dubrovnik and Sarajevo turned U.S. public opinion around to support intervention. Western countries also feared Bosnia could become a stronghold for Al Qaeda Europe.
During the Balkan conflict NATO put only peacekeeper boots on the ground, but they enforced no fly zones and bombed Serbia during the Kosovo conflict. Military aid flowed freely to all parties, with Russia supplying Serbia and the West backing Croatia.
The conflict in the Balkans was ultimately resolved by diplomats and the agreements contain models that could benefit both Russia and the West in Syria. Croatia and Serbia were carved from the former Yugoslavia. These new nations were left with even fewer ethnic minorities though these were already areas with historical cohesiveness. Croatia joins the European Union this July and last month Serbia agreed to enter in negotiations to resolve Kosovo’s status.
Bosnia, still balanced demographically between Muslims, Croatian Catholics, and Serbs, is a less successful result of the settlement. Ethnic factions are hunkered down in cohesive geographic sectors, barely working together cooperatively on a national level. At least the shooting, ethnic cleansing and threat to Europe were stopped.
Syria also has some religious cohesive regions. A Balkanized solution just might work for Russia and the US.
For Felicia Muftic’s Balkan background, visit www.mufticforum.com