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Balkan conflicts hold clear lessons on intervention in Syria

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As policymakers in Europe, the US, the Gulf, Turkey, and the Arab League search for ways to resolve the conflict, they should consider what the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo have to teach about what can and cannot be achieved by outside intervention.

The past in the Balkans is hauntingly similar to the current situation in Syria. As in Bosnia and Kosovo, Syria’s ethnic groups lived together harmoniously for decades. In both cases, unexpected developments – the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the Balkans, and the momentum of the Arab Spring uprisings in Syria – triggered dissent. And in each region, repression and reprisal destroyed the opportunity for peaceful change.

Efforts to end the war in Bosnia took so long and were so hamstrung by divergent internal and external interests that the fighting continued for years and caused the deaths of 100,000 people, often in flagrant disregard of international efforts to halt the violence. The siege of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica are two among many war crimes. Eventually, after extensive NATO airstrikes, UN artillery barrages, and the arming of the Croatian and Bosnian forces, an international peacekeeping force was able to separate the combatants.

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