World Politics Review | 4.4.12
World Politics Review Special Report | 7.31.12
By Alan W. Dowd

The civil war in Syria is now more than a year old, with estimates putting the civilian death toll at the hands of the Syrian army at 9,000 people in the past 13 months. As the slaughter continues, President Barack Obama has offered little more than promises of nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition and intonations about establishing “a process” to transition to a “legitimate government.”

Inaction in the face of such butchery is easy to criticize, of course. After all, America cannot intervene everywhere. But Obama’s inaction in the face of Assad’s brutality is especially glaring in light of the U.S. intervention in Libya just a year ago.

Recall that in announcing his decision to attack Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, Obama declared, “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, . . . where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.”

That sounds like a fairly accurate description of today’s Syria. And Obama’s halting, inconsistent reaction is beginning to resemble Washington’s response to the mangling of Bosnia almost two decades ago. As Sen. Joe Lieberman recently observed, “I feel like we are reliving history.”

When Yugoslavia began to descend into civil war in 1992, Western Europe seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to prove it was ready to keep the peace. It was, as one European diplomat famously declared, “the hour of Europe.”

Washington took the hint and stepped aside. It would be a fateful decision. Europe’s confidence in itself and in the U.N. was badly misplaced. As historian William Pfaff argues in “The Wrath of Nations,” international organizations like the United Nations and the European Community (forerunner to the European Union) “proved an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.”

“The United States didn’t act,” Pfaff observes, “so everyone failed to act.”

The result: some 200,000 dead and millions of refugees.

As a candidate, then-Gov. Bill Clinton had promised to end the bloodletting by arming the outgunned Bosnian Muslims and striking Serb artillery with U.S. airpower. But before he could take any such action as president, Clinton was blindsided by Somalia. And so, Bosnia’s slow-motion genocide continued for another 31 months.

Only after Washington reasserted itself in late-1995 did the situation on the ground change. When U.S. and NATO military might was finally brought to bear against Serbian paramilitaries, the one-sided war came to an abrupt end, just as many had predicted.

There are, of course, many differences between Bosnia and Syria. One of the most significant is how directly what’s happening in Syria affects America’s wider national-security interests.

Although the war in Bosnia had the potential to undermine the stability of Europe, the primary motivation for intervening in Bosnia was always humanitarian. Syria, on the other hand, is one of those unique cases where conscience and national interest overlap: Protecting the people of Syria by targeting and perhaps even toppling the Assad regime would deal a blow to Syria’s patron and partner, Iran.

A Libya-style intervention in Syria would not be a cakewalk. Syria’s military is far better-equipped than was Libya’s, and its air defenses are far more formidable. Moreover, not only is Russia more invested in preventing a U.N.-mandated intervention, both France and Britain seem far less enthusiastic about leading another coalition of the willing into Syria, perhaps owing to the heavy lifting they did in Libya.

Any viable intervention would first require disabling Syria’s sophisticated Russian-made air defenses. And because a no-fly zone wouldn’t stop Syrian tanks from shelling restive areas or Syrian units from hunting down rebels, airstrikes would inevitably move beyond Syria’s air defenses.

If the objective is to save lives, an international coalition could create humanitarian corridors or protected zones, perhaps along the Turkish border. Recall that NATO used air power alone to make Benghazi into a safe haven in 2011, and the U.S. carved out a safe zone in northern Iraq in 1991.

If the objective is to send Assad packing (which would fulfill the above objective), the Libya model of targeting nodes of regime power and coordinating with indigenous forces on the ground is an option. Of course, Syria’s rebels appear undermanned, under-equipped and less than united. But again, it pays to recall that international coalitions have successfully intervened in recent years to punish and/or end regimes that flout basic norms of behavior in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, collaborating with sometimes-unsavory and always-flawed indigenous forces on the ground.

Last weekend’s decision by the U.S., Britain, France, the Arab League and others to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people was a step in the right direction. But if Washington wants Assad’s war to end, it needs to do more.

Although the Obama administration has been going through the motions at the U.N. -- where Moscow’s support for Assad is far softer today than in February, when it blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution -- it has not really led on Syria. In fact, it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who proposed forming a Friends of Syria group to coordinate international support for the anti-Assad rebels. In contrast, Obama has been largely silent.

Tellingly, he wasn’t silent this time last year, when he ordered U.S. forces to take part in NATO’s air war against Gadhafi. Describing the speed with which the administration mobilized action on Libya, Obama boasted, “When people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians. It took us 31 days.”

If it was fair for Obama to take that not-so-subtle swipe at the Clinton administration’s approach to Bosnia, then it seems fair to point out the shortcomings, inconsistencies and consequences of Obama’s approach to Syria.