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Have We Learned Nothing From the Nineties? Syria is the Balkans All Over Again

As the international community continues to debate high-minded principles of national sovereignty, Syria continues its downward spiral into unmitigated chaos. The bitter truth is that the longer this situation continues, the deeper the scars will be once the nation has been freed of Bashar Al-Assad. Increasingly, crimes against humanity are being committed by both sides, as the Free Syria Army struggles to incorporate and maintain control over its armed rebel brigades.

But as harrowing as the details of the current situation are, the basic principles at stake are very clear. Indeed, the United States, and other countries in the West, ought to reflect on the Syrian conflict’s strong resemblance to the situation in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. That would clarify, if the events on the ground have not already, that the international community has a responsibility to intervene. More than that, it would underscore that the main source of regret, years from now, will be that it delayed so long in doing so. 

The most obvious, and sobering, comparison that presents itself is between Bashar Al Assad and former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Both are guilty, of course, of wide-scale crimes against humanity. Indeed, the military strategies of these two dictators also bear strong resemblances to one another. Assad’s siege of Homs clearly recalls Milosevic’s bombardment of Sarajevo.

But these two men also shared a similarly cynical political sensibility: Any and all ideologies were subordinate to their desire to establish personal power. Both had a record of supporting unity when it was in their interests, only to switch to supporting virulent sectarian nationalism when circumstances changed. In short, they are leaders who acquire influence in the least sustainable of fashions, by constantly manipulating their own people. 

There are also more personal resemblances between the two leaders. Heads of state who met with Milosevic leader frequently noted that he had a mercurial personality, which fluctuated between uncompromising public positions and a relaxed and removed private demeanor. Bashar al-Assad seems to have a similar cast of mind. Leaked emails sent to and from Bashar’s personal account that were acquired by The Guardian show that, in his consultations with his small circle of advisors, he often flip-flops on his positions without much semblance of independent thought or decision-making.

(Those emails also show a disconcerting similarity in their cultural tastes: Both dictators seemed to eschew high culture for (sometimes crude) popular art. Milosevic’s colleagues have recalled his affinity for Disney comics and Frank Sinatra tunes, while Bashar’s emails show him to be a fan of Chris Brown, LMFAO, and Harry Potter.) 

The Free Syria Army, for its part, invites parallels to the Kosovo Liberation Army. Like Milosevic once did with the KLA, Bashar has tried to label the FSA a terrorist group. The United States should have the foresight, as it did then, to resist such propaganda.

That is not to say that any of these groups are entirely innocent: Indeed, the KLA committed deplorable acts in the 1990s, like enlisting children, just as the FSA has been recently accused of committing crimes in a report by Human Rights Watch. But this serves only to highlight the importance of international assistance to the FSA, in order to ensure that they comply with international human rights standards and war conventions. Of course, the considerations here are not only humanitarian, but strategic: The reason that the KLA was militarily successful in the 1990s was that it received military, intelligence, and tactical assistance from Germany, and possibly from the intelligence agencies of the United States, Britain, and Switzerland.

Fortunately, prominent U.S. congressmen are rising to the occasion now with their support for the FSA, as they did then with the KLA. Representative Dana Rohrabacher was outspoken in opposing ground troops in Kosovo, but he passionately advocated arming the KLA. Senator John McCain, for his part, has gone even further in his statements regarding the FSA, saying that arming and supporting them is necessary, but insufficient at this point. McCain has suggested that, “at the request of the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, local coordinating committees inside the country, the United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria, especially in the north, through air strikes on Assad’s forces.” This is the type of leadership that history justly tends to reward.

There is, however, one potential similarity that we should desperately hope does not recur: further delay. President Bill Clinton’s notorious reluctance to act in the Balkans came at the expense of many lives. Unfortunately, President Obama has displayed a similar reticence toward Syria. Now, as then, oppressed populations are being asked to invest their hopes in a U.N. envoy. It is at times like these that history’s tendency to repeat itself has the perverse and horrific effect of forcing us to relive a nightmare. 

Radwan Ziadeh is a spokesperson for the Syrian National Council and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington.