The lessons for Europe two decades on from the war in Bosnia

For European countries, and for the United States, too, the shift from cold war to post-cold war had been too rapid for their thinking. Militarily their forces were still organised for a life-or-death struggle with the Warsaw Pact. Politically they could

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of a largely forgotten conflict, the second Balkan war. This was a nasty affair that does not arouse much interest today. But it is worth looking back in the light of our own experience of the third Balkan war from 1991 to 1999 and from the perspective of what has happened in the past 20 years.
 
The first Balkan war began in October 1912 and ended in May 1913. It might be described as a war of self-determination. The countries of the region took advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman empire, exposed by Italy’s seizure of what is now Libya, to push the Ottomans almost out of the Balkan Peninsula. The fighting stopped at the gates of Constantinople. After a pause for breath, lasting not much more than a month, the victors – Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro – began a war among themselves over the division of the territory captured.
 
The second Balkan war was shorter than the first (six weeks rather than eight months) and, if anything, nastier. There were atrocities in both, as there are in all wars. But while the first Balkan war was mostly a military-tomilitary affair, in the second the target was often the civilian population. If you could establish that a piece of territory was inhabited by your people – Serbs, Bulgarians or Greeks, – then you could claim it as a part of your national territory. This was therefore a war about people as well as territory: whether a village was Serb or Bulgarian might decide whether its inhabitants lived or died.
 
There were not many eyewitness reports in the newspapers of the day. But such reports as there were alarmed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, established only three years earlier. It decided to pursue its founder’s aims by investigating what had happened and making it known. To do this it sent a small fact-finding team to the region, including a British journalist, Henry Brailsford (who wrote, inter alia, for the New Statesman), and the Russian historian Pavel Milyukov, both of whom had personal experience of the region.
 
Their report told a story that seems all too familiar today: a war that sometimes had for its objective “the complete extermination of an alien population”, in which villages were burned, rape was used as a weapon and streams of refugees and the wounded were left to fend for themselves, with many of them dying. The members of the fact-finding mission found that, to get anywhere, they had to work their way around official obstruction, and after that through a mass of exaggeration, distortion and lies. Many who were involved in the Balkans in the 1990s would recognise the experience.
 
Carnegie republished the report on the earlier Balkan wars in 1993, as historical background to the events going on at the time. The great American diplomat George Kennan contributed an introduction. The parallels between 1913 and 1993 were, as he pointed out, inescapable. Military technology had changed, and the revolution in communications made the events much more visible in 1993, but the objectives and methods of those fighting were the same. In many ways the war of the 1990s was worse: it was longer and the deaths were at least double those of the second Balkan war. Kennan was writing in 1993 and there were two more years of atrocities to come in Bosnia, followed by a bitter peace, and a further war over Kosovo.
 
Twenty years on, the similarities remain; but the differences are also striking. In his introduction to the original report the president of Carnegie’s Balkan commission, the Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, had written: “All this horror will not cease as long as Europe continues to ignore it.” Europe and everyone else made many mistakes but no one can say they ignored what was going on.
 
In many ways the Europe of 1913 knew better what to do. When the fighting stopped, the great powers – Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France and Britain – met in a conference convened by the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to arrange an orderly settlement of the new borders. Out of this, Albania was created – though it took the threat of Austrian intervention to persuade Serbia finally to withdraw from Albanian territory; and a large Albanian-speaking population was left inside Serbia’s borders in Kosovo. This was the last occasion before the Great War on which a concert of European powers played a constructive role. They did so because of their alarm that a quarrel in the Balkans could trigger a European war. A year later this fear proved well founded.
 
In 1913 war was part of the natural order of things; in the Balkans it was half expected, given the weakness of the Ottoman empire. In 1991, by contrast, the very fact of war on European soil was a shock. And the brutal nature of the war made it even more shocking. For 40 years after 1945, Europe had been at the centre of the cold war; there had been armed intervention in Warsaw Pact countries (and also in Cyprus); European troops had been involved in wars abroad. But this was the first war on European soil in four decades. It came, moreover, at the moment when an extraordinary and peaceful transition was taking place across the rest of central Europe. By the 1990s most people had come to assume that violent conflict in Europe was over for good.
 
Partly because of this, no one knew what to do. Of the great powers of 1913 only Russia was still a world-class power in 1991. The western European powers were not capable of intervening either individually or collectively in a European crisis without American leadership; perhaps they were no longer capable of thinking like major powers. The positive side of this coin was that they had lost the imperial urge and no longer saw each other as enemies. But if they had lost the desire to compete they had not yet acquired the ability to co-operate (and here they still have some way to go). The EU was divided in many ways by the crisis, but there was never any possibility that it could come to blows.
 
Among the old powers only the Soviet Union knew what it wanted: and that was not to be involved. It had washed its hands of Yugoslavia some years before; now it was washing its hands of the whole of eastern Europe, and by the end of the year the Soviet Union itself would be in dissolution.
 
For European countries, and for the United States, too, the shift from cold war to postcold war had been too rapid for their thinking. Militarily their forces were still organised for a life-or-death struggle with the Warsaw Pact, even though that was also in dissolution. Politically they could think in terms of national interests – as Britain had done ten years earlier in the Falklands – or of Allied interests; but the war in Bosnia did not fit into either of these categories. As such, the US decided this was none of its business and the Europeans, horrified at what was going on, fell back on a muddled mixture of diplomacy without muscle, monitoring without strategic purpose, UN peacekeeping without peace, and humanitarian action that was systematically manipulated by the combatants.
 
Looking from a distance, the 89-year-old Kennan’s view was clearer. In his introduction he wrote that a settlement was going to require outside mediation, “and in all probability outside force to bring the parties to accept and observe it”. The EU had tried the mediation but not the force. Two years later, in 1995, Jacques Chirac decided with John Major that enough was enough, and they put together a British/French rapid-reaction force that provided some of the backing for Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic push.
 
In 1993 the similarities with 1913 were striking. Today, 20 years on, we should be more conscious of the differences. As Kennan pointed out, the communications revolution played a big part in how things developed. Carnegie had the right idea but in 1913 it was the only body attempting to establish the facts. In the 1990s the media were present everywhere, together with humanitarian NGOs and EU/UN monitors. Although we complain about “the CNN effect” – which is indeed sometimes shallow and short-lived – it is a powerful force for action and sometimes that is right.
 
Europe began disunited, muddled and ineffective; but the process of continuous dialogue kept European tensions within bounds and led eventually to important contributions by the European Union. And even when Europe failed, it failed within a multilateral framework; and that is better than the 1913/1914 version.
 
As the crisis went on, both the European countries and the US got their act together better. Kosovo was a second American-led intervention; but it was at least more timely than Bosnia. In Macedonia in 2000 there was a further intervention by Nato but with European forces only, because the US did not want to be involved. This is now forgotten – because it succeeded. It was a preventative action and probably did prevent a further Slav- Albanian conflict. And with the military deployment came a diplomatic effort led by Javier Solana and supported by the Nato secretary general, George Robertson. This used the breathing space provided by Nato to find a political solution to the ethnic problems.
 
The most important European contribution was the realisation that a lasting peace would require the EU eventually to take the countries of the Balkans into the Union. Britain was one of the authors of this policy in the 1990s. It was agreed by the EU as a whole at the Thessaloníki Summit in 2003.
 
Twenty years is a short time and nothing is finished. Bosnia is not yet a functioning state, though there is no risk of a return to violence. Macedonia’s progress towards the EU and Nato remains obstructed by the unresolved question of its name, a legacy of the 1912/1913 conflicts. However, progress continues. Croatia – a part of the problem in the early 1990s – joined the EU this year, and can be part of the solution. Serbia will start the accession process next year, following a negotiation led by Catherine Ashton that has brought a measure of normalisation between Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo is taking the first steps in the same direction in its own right.
 
This remains a policy with a number of health warnings. Slovenia seemed to be a model member of the EU until the question of Croatian membership came up and, suddenly, the Balkan gene kicked in. Corruption – the mixture of politics, economics and organised crime – is still a problem everywhere in the Balkans, as it is in much of central Europe.
 
It is vital for the EU that Croatia prove a trustworthy member. Kennan wrote that, in addition to a territorial settlement, a condition of peace would be “greater and more effective restraints on the behaviour of the states of the region”. In the end, the only effective restraint on sovereign states is self-restraint. The EU, if it functions well, should provide a framework for that. It will be difficult, and it could still go wrong; but 20 years after the third Balkan war the balance sheet doesn’t look bad – better than it did 20 years after the second.
 
Robert Cooper worked for Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton at the EU until last year. He is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations
Broken spoils of war: remains and personal effects of victims of the conflict at the city morgue in Visoko, Bosnia. Image: Ziyah Gafic

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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