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The Line That Stretches from Srebrenica to Homs

The West is forgetting the lessons of Bosnia in Syria.

by Emir Suljagic and Reuf Bajrovic 2 March 2012

The daily footage of the bombardment and siege of Homs by Bashar al-Assad’s army and security forces evokes vivid memories for those familiar with the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Bosnians are all too well-acquainted with the meat-grinding machinery of modern siege warfare. This relentless assault on Syria’s people can no longer be countenanced. 


Graves of Sarajevo's war dead. Photo by Clark and Kim Kays/flickr.


As in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina two decades ago, one of the first steps taken by the European Union in the face of growing disaster in Syria was to impose an arms embargo. The basic assumption that the fewer arms there are the lower the death toll should have been discredited by the Bosnia experience. Even the UN arms embargo’s chief exponent, then-British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, has since voiced belated regret over his efforts to prevent “leveling the killing field.” The Yugoslav People’s Army and its Bosnian Serb subsidiary never wanted for arms, employing them against a virtually unarmed adversary, the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even without the Russian and Iranian support he is receiving, Assad would hold an effective monopoly on deadly force in Syria, like his father’s ally Slobodan Milosevic before him.


The crimes against humanity  committed in Syria by the Assad regime amount to reprising the ethnic cleansing practices seen in the Balkans in the 1990s. There is no moral difference between Libya last year, where the West and some Arab states effectively intervened to protect civilians and facilitate popular liberation, and Syria now. While there is a tremendous human cost being exacted in Syria, this is not a “humanitarian crisis.” In both Syria and Libya, an oppressive regime employed all means necessary, including murder, persecution, and torture of ordinary citizens, to maintain power. Russian and Chinese opposition to military intervention cannot be an excuse for inaction.


A meaningful response to the butchery ongoing in Syria must include some basic elements: recognition of the Syrian National Council, arming the Free Syrian Army and providing it with air support, and indicting Assad and his underlings for crimes against humanity.


Arming the Free Syrian Army, founded to defend unarmed demonstrators from Assad’s forces, would help end the violence – the distribution of arms matters more than their sheer number. The ability to take and defend territory would bolster attempts by Syrians to formulate a single political platform for a new unified and democratic Syria. Continued violence and ethnic cleansing will deepen Syria’s ethnic and religious cleavages, which the rebels have seemed able to overcome in the past year. Finally, arming the opposition is a precondition for the fight remaining Syrian. Abandoning the Free Syrian Army would leave these forces susceptible to radical ideologies and movements that seek to hijack the Syrian fight for freedom and hinder building a democratic and prosperous new Syria for decades to come.


Again, Bosnia should be a lesson: in a far less conducive environment, some Bosniak elements turned to extremist ideologies, which resulted in the formation of religious Muslim-only units, with emirs and imams, in what started out as a secular, multiethnic Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Wartime atrocities committed by foreign and domestic mujahedeen created deep-seated fears and resentments that continue to be exploited by nationalist politicians.


The case of Libya demonstrates that Western air power can be employed to devastating effect in support of a popular insurrection. Indicting Assad and his executioners would not only further discredit the regime and put an end to the impunity with which the regime is prosecuting its brutal campaign; it could also save lives in real time by deterring further atrocities.


The assumption of impunity with which Assad’s generals are issuing orders to shoot unarmed members of the opposition, is the same kind of assumption of impunity that Slobodan Milosevic’s and Radovan Karadzic’s generals operated under in Bosnia in the 1990s, orchestrating ethnic cleansing and genocide. 


The UN General Assembly adopted an international “responsibility to protect” populations whose governments demonstrate an unwillingness to do so. Explaining the intervention in Libya, U.S. President Barack Obama said the line from the beaches of Normandy stretched to Benghazi. Unless the West effectively intervenes, including providing crucial evidence to the International Criminal Court to support indictment of the Assad regime's leaders, the line drawn in Srebrenica in 1995 will stretch all the way to Homs or beyond.

Emir Suljagic is a Srebrenica survivor and author. Reuf Bajrovic is a political consultant in Washington, D.C. This commentary originally appeared in the El Pais newspaper.

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