In Syria, the best solution is a negotiated peace
First published in The Sunday Telegraph, 8 September 2013:
Like hundreds of thousands of civilians, soldiers, contractors, UN and charity-staff, I have worked in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 20 years. I was in favour of the Prime Minister’s humanitarian motion on Syria, but against a deeper intervention. I find it very difficult however, to apply lessons from other countries to Syria. Many of those I have worked with feel the same.
This is in part because of the uncertainty and ignorance we experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. You peer at the world through reinforced glass from armoured vehicles, live behind concrete blast-walls. You have very little contact with the local population. You don’t understand them, and they don’t understand you. Sometimes, locals seem to give you the benefit of the doubt — in Kosovo, for example, our mistakes were largely interpreted as incompetence not malice. But in Afghanistan, I saw honest development projects interpreted as a conspiracy to steal oil, or a science-fiction material called “red mercury”.
In Bosnia — my first experience — our intervention finally improved a terrible situation. By 1995, 100,000 had been killed, a million refugees displaced, and the country was divided by militias and their checkpoints. Bosnian Serbs had massacred thousands in Srebrenica, and Sarajevo was being shelled. The West was reluctant to intervene because people feared a second Vietnam; or that “centuries of ethnic hatred” would make the situation unresolvable.
Then, more than three years after the conflict began, the West bombed the Bosnian Serb artillery. Croat troops recaptured Serb territory. With the Serbs reeling, but not defeated, the US invited everyone, including war criminals, to a peace conference. And after the peace deal, the West deployed 60,000 soldiers, and established an international administration. The war ended.
Within the next decade, the militia had been disbanded, the internal borders had vanished, owners had retrieved a million properties, refugees had returned, and the war criminals had been brought to justice. This happened without a single US or British soldier being killed. The crime rate in Bosnia is now as low as Sweden.
But the key — and difficult – lesson for Syria is that Bosnia ultimately worked not because we took dramatic military action. It worked because our action was always not only principled, but cautious. Unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, the West did not feel that Bosnia was “an existential threat” to its security. The aim was only to end the war, and improve local lives.The West was reluctant to take risks. If it had proved too dangerous, we were always prepared to acknowledge that we had failed, and withdraw. In the first year, the international soldiers barely left their bases: there were more injuries on the basketball court than in the field. We were not committed to toppling Milosevic, and were prepared to talk to everyone, including war criminals.
The first refugee returns were led by Bosnian charities. The first moves against the war criminal Karadzic came from his allies. The genius of the international community lay in getting cautiously behind these Bosnian moves, and continuing a process that ended not just with peace but with Milosevic and Karadzic on trial at The Hague in 2001 and 2008.
9/11 made this kind of intervention much more difficult. Suddenly Iraq and Afghanistan were presented as a war against “an existential threat”, in which “failure was not an option”. Rather than being reluctant to intervene, some leaders seemed eager. Rather than being prepared to work with almost anyone, and give space to local leaders, we refused to engage with our “enemies” (Sadrists or Taliban), and we focused with paranoid intensity on micromanaging the Iraqi and Afghan governments. We tried to keep public support by over-emphasising the importance of the mission. We were drawn into betraying our principles, and strengthening warlords. And by the time it became clear that the mission was actually impossible, we were trapped by our boasts, promises, fears, and guilt.
Once you have been through this a couple of times, you see how cruel and irrational the process can be, how easily we can dig ourselves ever deeper into an impossible situation. If we allow ourselves now in Syria to talk up fears of terrorists, Iran, and regional security, one rocket attack will lead to another, then to ground troops, then to nation-building, then an inability to leave.In Syria, as in Bosnia, the best situation is a negotiated peace, in which all sides are included. We achieved this in Bosnia by putting pressure on Milosevic through our bombardment, and through a Croat advance.
But there is no equivalent of the Croat army in Syria, and it is difficult to predict how our bombardment would change the psychology of Assad, or make the rebels more likely to negotiate. So the real lesson of Bosnia does not lie in the tactics. Those depend entirely on the culture of Syria, its neighbours, and the conditions on the ground, and may have to change.Bosnia’s real lesson is about a state of mind: combining principles with prudence, allowing you to try something in good faith, while still being prepared to walk away if it doesn’t work.
I believe that the next challenge for foreign policy lies in explaining the difference between an intervention which is voluntary and altruistic, and a mission which is crippled by fear; the difference between Bosnia on the one hand, and Iraq and Afghanistan on the other. That is what will provide the middle path between inaction and over-action. We must embrace the ideal and possibility of humanitarian intervention, but we must reject the mindset that leads to intervention without limits.