The recent hullabaloo over Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons is appropriate at one level but surreal at another. When a dictator such as Syrian President Bashar Assad has already killed tens of thousands of his own people with the most brutal and indiscriminate of tactics, the fact that he might have harmed a few dozen more with sarin gas, while horrible, does not radically change the complexion of the conflict.
That President Obama has said Syria’s use of chemical weapons would constitute crossing a "red line," means he will have to act. If U.S. intelligence eliminates any remaining doubts about the use of chemical weapons, the United States will probably have to retaliate — perhaps with cruise missile strikes against whatever Syrian army unit did the deed.
But what about the broader problem ? Is the United States, already weary of wars, burdened by debt, and chastised by the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, going to stand aside indefinitely in this war ?
Obama’s critics want him to "do something." They refer to the Rwanda genocide of 1994, or the more successful Libya intervention of 2011, and demand that the U.S., along with other NATO states and the Arab League, find a way to end the carnage. Arm the rebels, establish a no-fly zone, set up safe areas for internally displaced persons and refugees.
Indeed, I tend to support these kinds of ideas myself, and the president is reportedly considering providing some arms to some of the insurgents more seriously than he did before.
Before entering war
Even so, Obama is right to be wary of putting U.S. credibility on the line when there is no clear exit strategy. The Syrian insurgency is a motley bunch that includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists. The overthrow of Assad would no more end Syria’s war than the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought peaceful bliss to Iraq.
We need a debate about the right exit strategy in Syria before we enter into the war. The right model is neither Iraq, nor Afghanistan nor Libya, but the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Two decades ago, we watched similar killings for a couple years in the nation that had broken away from Yugoslavia, until international outrage and battlefield dynamics converged to make a solution possible. We bombed Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian militias, then forced him into a deal that created a "soft partition" of Bosnia.
It wasn’t perfect, but 18 years later, Serbs, Muslims and Croats have not gone back to war.
Syria could be harder because the insurgents are so fractured. But by offering the various factions help — not only now on the battlefield, but also later as they try to rebuild Syria once Assad is gone — we can establish influence and leverage. This will not be easy and will hardly guarantee a great outcome. But it is far more promising than the trajectory we are on.
With a Bosnia-type approach, Assad’s Alawite minority would keep a section of the country, most likely along the coast, where local police would be the main security forces. Assad himself would have to step down and ideally would go into exile. Kurds would keep similar sections of the country in the north. The main central cities would be shared.
Establish basic rights
And, of course, minority rights would be enshrined in the deal. In other words, having different parts of the country run primarily by one group or another would not be an invitation to further ethnic cleansing or killing.
Yes, this plan does imply a number of U.S. peacekeepers on the ground, perhaps comparable in number to the 20,000 who began the job in Bosnia in 1995. The United States should, however, commit to such a deployment only if other countries, including Arab states and Turkey, provide the majority of peacekeepers. In fact, we should seek pledges of international participation before moving to any direct U.S. involvement in the conflict.
With international participation, combined with a fair-minded idea for a peace accord later, Washington and other key capitals might also finally convince Moscow that there is no hope for putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. We need Russia’s help to push Assad out and get this kind of settlement.
It is time to get realistic about our options in Syria and to get beyond the impulse just to "do something." We need a comprehensive approach that includes a viable exit strategy. The Bosnia model provides the best first draft for such a plan.