First Mondays: Final Thoughts – December 2015 Policy Salon

Thank you to everyone who attended our first member-facilitated policy salon in December. Special thanks to our member-host, Dana Watters, for leading us in an expansive review of the regional history of the Balkans (seriously, the year 1389 was briefly mentioned) and taking us through comparisons with the current situation in Syria.

Below we’ve extracted some of the key distillations from the evening’s discussion and tacked on Dana’s book and movie recommendations for those interested in exploring the topic further.

Lessons for Syria: What We Can – and Can't – Learn From the Balkans

1) Geography. Syria is about four times the size of Bosnia, which presents obvious differing demands in terms of materiel, ground troops, etc. Bosnian topography is mountainous around Sarajevo, which kept the fighting somewhat concentrated, whereas Syria’s topography is flat and expansive, allowing for fighters to move about more freely. Enforcing a no-fly zone in Bosnia was feasible in part due to its geopolitical location; while in Syria, the risk of repercussions for violating sovereign airspace is high, as recently demonstrated by Russia and Turkey.

2) We don’t know who we want to “win” in Syria. The Balkans conflict was primarily among nation-states with recognized leaders, an existing model of multi-ethnic governance, and relative adherence (or deliberate non-adherence) to conventional rules of engagement. Those who violated these dictums were identifiable, prosecutable, and aligned with a defined territory. Syria involves a multitude of state and non-state actors, including militias with varying degrees of competence and legitimacy with complicating meddling from external backers. 

3) Unlike Syria, Bosnia was not an international proxy war. Bosnian factions had backers from the Yugoslav diaspora and some unhelpful bankrolling from other nations, but nothing on the scale of Syria, whose powerful proxies don’t fit neatly into any geometrical analogy. International conflict mediators discuss a period of “ripeness” when conditions are such that players think the benefits of negotiation outweigh the costs of continued conflict – in Syria, even a snowball’s chance in hell (hey, it’s still a chance!) is uncertain given the contradictory interests of the many players and their backers. This Foreign Policy article explains more about Syria’s proxy war.

4) There’s no good model for the “long game” win. One of our readings suggested recent U.S.-led interventions as potential models for Syria – Bosnia among them – but ultimately these are poor analogies. In Bosnia, leaders of the various warring groups had end-game objectives that stopped well short of world domination; ISIS declared its global caliphate goal long ago. Regardless of how the civil war in Syria is resolved, ISIS’ reign of terror reaches beyond its physical base in Syria and Northern Iraq with its multi-continental affiliates and lone-wolf actors that make it an amorphous and complex foe that can present itself anywhere at any time.  

5) The Bosnian war unfolded at a unique time in modern global politics. While policymakers still suffered from “Vietnam Syndrome” in the early 1990s and had witnessed disaster in Somalia, their reluctance cannot compare to the situation now, in which the U.S. and its allies have Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya fresh in their minds. The war in the Balkans coincided with two major global power shifts: (1) the collapse of the Soviet Union, which put Russia in a drastically different position than it is in today under Putin’s leadership, and (2) in the case of Bosnia, the future of NATO relied on decisive action. 

If you’re looking for a deeper dive on the Balkans conflict, these are from Dana’s recommended reading list:

Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, by Laura Silber and Allan Little
Bosnia: A Short History, by Noel Malcolm
To End a War, by Amb. Richard Holbrooke
This Was Not Our War, by Amb. Swanee Hunt

And if you’re looking for less time commitment and more Hollywood, Dana’s top picks are:
The Whistleblower (2011)
No Man’s Land (2001)
Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) 

Please feel free to share any additional thoughts or feedback by emailing us at ideas(at)franklinstreetpolicygrp(dot)nyc.