The Misunderstood Lessons of Bosnia for Syria

Published In: The Washington Quarterly, v. 37, no. 4, Winter 2015, p. 55-69

Posted on on March 03, 2015

by Andrew Radin

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The 1992 to 1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been highly influential as an analogy for understanding intervention in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and most recently in Syria. Advocates for intervention identify three common lessons from Bosnia: large scale ethnic violence leads to intervention because a failure to act would threaten US reputation and leadership, diplomacy backed by force is effective at ending civil wars, and intervention to stop ethnic violence is a moral obligation. However, these lessons do not fully reflect the US experience in Bosnia, and the adoption of these incomplete lessons undermines US policy-making. Diplomacy backed by force ended the war in Bosnia because US action had already created a favorable military and political balance, and the morality of intervention was determined not only by ending war but also by whether the US fulfilled its moral commitment to build peace and democracy. These revised lessons from Bosnia have implications for US policy in Syria, especially with regard to removing the Assad regime. The use of US military force against ISIS will almost inevitably draw the US further into the conflict and, if it is victorious, into a large-scale state building effort. Furthermore, training opposition forces is only likely to be effective for ending the war if there is greater regional support for removing Assad from power.

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