Lessons from Bosnia

Geneva II echoes efforts to resolve Balkans conflict 20 years ago

By Philippe Leroux-martin (Geopolitics)

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Published: Sat 25 Jan 2014, 12:03 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:38 PM

The United Nations initiative to hold peace talks between the government of Bashar Al Assad and the Syrian opposition won backing from Nato members and Russia and “Geneva II”, as the negotiations are commonly known, started Wednesday.

The process faces daunting challenges. What is the likelihood of Assad’s negotiating his own departure, given his strengthening military position? And to what extent can opposition representatives claim to act for the fragmented, even rival, forces fighting in Syria?

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, many observers have drawn parallels between Syria and Bosnia. Indeed, the Geneva II talks echo efforts to resolve the conflict in the Balkans 20 years ago.

What are the lessons to be learned? If there is one general lesson for the parties meeting in Switzerland that stems from the international community’s efforts to knit Bosnia back together, it is of the need for humility. As determined as foreigners may be to resolve conflict, civil war is extraordinarily resistant to outside intervention. This has three important implications.

The first is that peace initiatives are often an unreliable lens through which to view a conflict, partly because of our unwillingness to look beyond our own goals. There is a tendency to assume that facts on the ground in places like Bosnia or Syria are primarily controlled by strategies and timetables devised by foreigners. They are not.

Conflict is embedded in the environment; peace initiatives come and go. The Dayton Accords that ended fighting in Bosnia in 1995 were preceded by four unsuccessful peace plans: Cutileiro, Vance-Owen, Owen-Stoltenberg and the Contact Group’s. The conflict in Syria has already generated its own share.

Equally crucial is that we ask how our own efforts may interfere with conflict. In Bosnia in 1993, the Vance-Owen Peace Plan, a joint initiative of the United Nations and the European Community, proposed new political entities divided along ethnic lines. The effect was to intensify campaigns of ethnic cleansing as warring groups tried to strengthen their positions ahead of the proposed partition.

We should expect plans discussed in Switzerland to have a similar impact in Syria. This may be unavoidable, but armed with the knowledge, we may be able to predict how the pattern of violence will evolve. Then we can allocate resources better to meet humanitarian needs as we negotiate peace.

A second implication is the need to grasp the larger regional picture. The American envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, understood this during the diplomatic surge that led to Dayton: He made sure to secure the support of his European partners and Russia as he went along; and he brought the leaders of Bosnia’s neighbors, Croatia and Yugoslavia (now Serbia), to the table.

The Dayton agreement was far from perfect, as Bosnia’s current problems indicate, but Holbrooke’s strategy also showed how to create the conditions to enforce a settlement. Russia, together with both the European Community and individual member states, played crucial roles in implementing Dayton, and the international community was able to rely on cooperation from Croatia and Serbia to help manage developments in Bosnia.

This suggests that the Obama administration’s effort to support the Geneva talks as part of a broad coalition that includes Russia and, potentially, Iran is the right strategy.

The last conclusion we should draw from Bosnia is that we should recognise that war does not end when the weapons are put down. As the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted: “The ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”

The experience of Bosnia is that wartime elites continue to pursue belligerent objectives even after the cessation of hostilities.

Instead of focusing exclusively on ending violence in the near term, negotiators in Switzerland should see a peace deal as a moment of transition when parties define the institutional and legal parameters under which they will pursue a conflict no longer under arms. Factions will not abandon their larger aspirations at the negotiating table; they will seek to exploit or resist the impact of foreign intervention before and after peace talks. Diplomacy’s power to steer conflict lies largely in its ability to shape future behavior through electoral and constitutional engineering.

The international community’s undertaking to end Syria’s civil war is highly ambitious. Even if Geneva II is successful in ending violence, foreign powers must expect that, as in Bosnia, some factions will seek to undermine the fragile settlement by other means. Insurgency is not a purely military phenomenon.

Our diplomacy must therefore be resilient, patient and humble as it guides the warring parties away from open strife. Winning the peace is never a short-term endeavor.

Philippe Leroux-Martin is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Diplomatic Counterinsurgency: Lessons From Bosnia and Herzegovina

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