Syria and the Limits of Comparison
By Robert D. Kaplan
Because so many war plans simply do not survive the reality of war itself, each war is a unique universe unto its own and thus comparisons with previous wars, while useful, may also prove illusory. One of the many wrong assumptions about the Second Gulf War before it started was that it would somehow be like the First Gulf War, in which the pessimists had been humiliated by the ease of the victory. Indeed, the Second Gulf War unfolded in vastly different ways, this time proving the pessimists right. That is why the recent media refrain comparing a military operation in Syria with the one in Kosovo in 1999 worries me.
There are profound differences.
Syria has a population ten times the size of Kosovo's in 1999. Because everything in Syria is on a much vaster scale, deciding the outcome by military means could be that much harder.
Kosovo sustained violence and harsh repression at the hands of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, which was met with a low-intensity separatist campaign by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Violence was widespread but not nearly on the scale of Syria's. Syria is in the midst of a full-fledged civil war. The toppling of Milosevic, moreover, carried much less risk of ever-expanding anarchy than does the toppling of Syrian ruler Bashar al Assad.
Kosovo was more or less contained within the southern Balkans, with relatively limited chance for a spillover — as it turned out — into neighboring countries and territories. Full-scale sectarian anarchy in Syria threatens to destabilize a wider region.
The Kosovo Liberation Army may have been a nasty bunch by some accounts, with criminal elements. But it was not a threat to the United States like the transnational jihadists currently operating in Syria. For President Bill Clinton to risk bringing to power the Kosovo Liberation Army was far less of a concern than President Barack Obama possibly helping to midwife to power a Sunni jihadist regime.
Kosovo did not have a complex of chemical weapons facilities scattered throughout its territory as Syria does, with all the military and logistical headaches of trying to neutralize them.
The Kosovo war campaign did not have to countenance a strong and feisty Russia, which at the time was reeling from Boris Yeltsin's incompetent, anarchic rule. Vladimir Putin, who has significant equities in al Assad's Syria, may do everything in his power to undermine a U.S. attack. Though, it must be said, Putin's options should Obama opt for a significant military campaign are limited within Syria itself. But Putin can move closer to Iran by leaving the sanctions regime, and ratchet-up Russia's anti-American diplomacy worldwide more effectively than Yeltsin ever wanted to, or was capable of.
The Kosovo war did not engage Iran as this war must. For all of the missiles that America can fire, it does not have operatives on the ground like Iran has. Neither will the United States necessarily have the patience and fortitude to prosecute a lengthy and covert ground-level operation as Iran might for years to come, and already has. A weakened or toppled al Assad is bad for Iran, surely, but it does not altogether signal that America will therefore receive a good result from this war. A wounded Iran might race even faster toward a nuclear option. It is a calculated risk.
The Kosovo war inflicted significant pain on Serbian civilians through airstrikes, but the Syrian population has already been pummeled by a brutal war for two years now, and so it is problematic whether airstrikes in this case can inflict that much more psychological pain on the parts of the population either still loyal or indifferent to the regime.
The goal in Kosovo was to limit Serbia's geographic influence and to ignite a chain of events that would lead to Milosevic's ouster. Those goals were achieved: Milosevic was forced from power in the fall of 2000, largely because of a chain of events stemming from that war. His ouster, as I wrote in The New York Times on Oct. 6, 2000, meant the de facto death of the last ruling Communist Party in Europe, even if in its final years it had adopted national-fascism as a tactic. Because the war was in significant measure a result of the efforts of a single individual, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, it demonstrated how individuals can dramatically alter history for the better.
Kosovo thus symbolized the power of human agency over impersonal forces in order to wrest a victory for human rights. This is a popular cause among liberal journalists and intellectuals, as is the desire to do something to punish the massive human rights violations of the al Assad regime. The comparison between Kosovo and Syria follows from that. But it is a flawed comparison: Elegantly toppling Milosevic incurred no negative side effects. Toppling al Assad could lead to a power center in the Levant as friendly to transnational jihadists as the one in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was in the late 1990s until 2001.
Of course, the Obama administration will try to calibrate its military effort in a way to avoid further jihadi chaos in Syria. But even with overwhelming firepower, it is not necessarily in control. Whereas ending Milosevic's rule meant an end to ethnic cleansing, it is far from certain that sectarian carnage would end with al Assad's demise; it might possibly even intensify, with Sunnis exacting revenge on a weakened and cornered Alawite community.
Obama faces a dilemma more extreme than the one Clinton faced in Kosovo. If he chooses limited military strikes to send a message against the use of chemical weapons, he risks looking weak, especially following the powerful rhetoric employed by his secretary of state, John Kerry. If he chooses regime change — while not calling it that — he threatens to unleash a jihadi nightmare. He may try a middle option calibrated to seriously erode al Assad's power base while sending a message to Russia and Iran to help him negotiate a stable transfer of authority in Damascus — something that might yet open up a wider diplomatic process with Iran. But that is obviously very difficult to do.
Keep another thing in mind about Kosovo. At that time, the United States had not been in a long ground war for a quarter-century and thus the American people were not weary of war. Even so, Clinton rightly calculated that the public would not tolerate casualties on the ground in a war that did not involve a naked American interest. But the American public is now tottering from more than a decade of bloody ground war, and so Obama has even less leeway than Clinton, even as Syria presents a greater military challenge than Kosovo.
So far, Obama has handled the Middle East tolerably well. He has reduced and ended ground force commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, while avoiding quagmires elsewhere in the face of regional change and chaos. This is in keeping with the leadership of a global maritime power that has serious military commitments in Asia and elsewhere, even as its energy dependency on the Middle East is on the wane. But Obama now faces a defining event that will test his commitment to keep America out of regional quicksand while being able to wield considerable power in the region at the same time. If Obama prosecutes a significant military operation, one thing is certain: Syria will be its own war for the United States with its own narrative, for better or worse.