Syria is not, and will not be, the new Kosovo

David Bosco has a new piece up on the Multilateralist blog, looking at the European Union’s strategy for handling Syria. The EU has chosen to work entirely within the framework of the United Nations so far, including the Security Council, where Russia has vetoed and promised to do so again. Rather than being deterred by this set-back, the EU has rallied the other components of the UN, including the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, to pass condemnations by large margins. In noting this, Bosco finds it odd that talk of intervention without Council approval has not been seriously discussed by diplomats:

One interesting feature of the diplomacy surrounding both Libya and Syria is how little talk there has been of outsiders using force without Security Council approval (although this might have been a live topic if Russia and China had not acquiesced to intervention in Libya). The Kosovo precedent–humanitarian intervention without a Council mandate–has not resurfaced. The scant discussion of this option may signal a deepening of the understanding that states cannot initiate force–at least not for elective, “community” purposes such as humanitarian intervention–without the Council’s blessing.

I disagree with his view that the lack of discussion in citing the “Kosovo precedent” is a new understanding of the Council’s role in humanitarian uses of force. Rather, it’s worth noting that the Kosovo intervention was in many ways like Libya- unique. If a Kosovo precedent exists, it is one in which a set of four circumstances have to be met before force will be used without UNSC approval. The first, that of a humanitarian crisis with potential cross-border spillover, has been met. The second, the stalemate of the Security Council in handling the matter, has been as well. 

The third dynamic that was present in Kosovo, and is lacking in Syria to a certain degree, is a clear and systematic killing of one side by the other with genocidal repercussions. The Syrian government’s crackdown is fierce and brutal, but has yet to be one of imminent mass slaughter as we saw in Libya with Benghazi and in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. The fourth dynamic, and the most important for our comparison, is that there must be no Great Power interests at stake preventing intervention. Here is where Syria and Kosovo diverge the most. The Kosovo intervention was disapproved of by Russia due to cultural ties with Serbia and the use of the NATO alliance to carry it out. But no material links were truly in place between the two states. In Syria, however, there are economic and strategic ties with Russia at stake, in the form of arms sales to Damascus and the southernmost Russian naval base remaining. Russia will not abide by an intervention in Syria without Council approval and the other Great Powers don’t want to push Russia into retaliatory actions in other relations they have with Moscow.

I will note that the Free Syrian Army may have learned more from the Kosovo Liberation Army than we’re comfortable with. But they’ve learned the wrong lesson. In provoking the FRY into using overwhelming force against the Kosovars, the KLA prompted Western intervention. But in the fog of war surrounding Syria these days, it’s impossible to get a clear read on who is doing the killing in all instances, not when all of the dead have the same background. Should another situation arise in which all four dynamics are present, I do believe that we will see action taken without UNSC approval due to a Russian or Chinese veto. Syria, unfortunately, is not that case.

EDIT: Much to my surprise, Bosco actually responded to me as an edit on his original blog post. I think it’s only fair that I do the same. In particular, he was not convinced by my third and fourth dynamics marking the difference between Syria and Kosovo.

I don’t find these distinctions compelling. The estimates I’ve seen suggest that more have been killed in Syria than was the case in Kosovo at the time of international intervention. Pace Brown, pre-intervention Kosovo was not a situation of mass slaughter; instead, there had been a steady accretion of violence and displacement (in fact, the most intense campaign of forced displacement occurred after NATO intervention).

As to Russian opposition, is Brown suggesting that Russia would use force to oppose intervention in Syria? It appears to me that Russian objections are about the same order of intensity as they were in Kosovo. At one point in the run-up to the Kosovo intervention Boris Yeltsin reportedly called up Bill Clinton and screamed at him about the dangers of pushing Russia too far. And it’s worth remembing that during the Kosovo intervention, Russia actually did deploy its forces to seize Pristina’s airport before NATO forces could get there, leading to a tense standoff.

As to the first point, I will grant him that the numbers may be in Syria’s favor when it comes to the comparison. And while I thought I was up on my Kosovo history, I’ll admit that I wasn’t aware that the most systematic of the violence against ethnic Albanians was after NATO intervention, nor did I know about the siezing of Pristina’s airport. I’m still not sure, though, that the violence in Syria reaches the potential for razing of cities we saw in Libya or the focused killing of an ethnic group that we saw in Kosovo. It’s at an awkward point where nobody is entirely sure yet which way the ball will drop: towards a ratcheted up campaign against all civilians by the government, a more clearly defined and delineated civil war, or an unknown third option. Without knowing which way things are tilting, it’s hard to put together a response involving intervention that is as clear as Libya (“protect civilians” and give cover to rebels) or Kosovo (“protect civilians” and end violence against an ethnic group).

As for the second point, I’m not suggesting that Russia will actually use force. Even if they did, the naval forces they’ve previously sent to Syria as a warning would be overcome by the US Fifth Fleet. I am, however, saying that Russia will do everything it can to make the West’s lives miserable in other capacities. Vetoing previously agreed upon resolutions, revoking NATO’s ability to transport materials to Afghanistan and encouraging other CIS states to do the same, becoming a burr in the WTO now that they’re members,  just generally being even more obstructionist than usual. Libya pushed Russia’s relations with the West lower, that’s for certain, but I don’t believe they’ve hit rock bottom. I don’t know what that would look like, but I believe that intervening in Syria without Council approval would give us a good idea.

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