Friday, March 7, 2014

Syria and the "Bosnia Dilemma"

While I and most of my intellectual kin have been having fun poring over the Russia/Ukraine/Crimea crisis (yay! Irredentism is relevant again!), there is still a very real, live, nasty shooting war going on in Syria. Efforts a month or two ago to negotiate something - even something as minor as a humanitarian aid transit agreement - have gone nowhere. As a result of the lack of progress and the sameness of the news, for most Westerners Syria has slid towards the back burner of international attention a bit.

Despite this, Barbara Walter has an excellent piece over at Political Violence @ a Glance with a very interesting suggestion for how the war in Syria might be brought to an end. Her idea, which she refers to as the "not so bad solution": give each of the main combatant groups "significant territorial autonomy". As she explains it:
This arrangement allows combatants to maintain political control over their own piece of territory as well as maintain control over their own security forces. This arrangement creates a situation where former combatants are able to enforce a peace on each other even if no third party exists to help them. The result is likely to be more willing negotiating partners and a more defensible peace.
She is almost certainly right in her diagnosis - that there is at present no negotiable solution in part because all parties still think they can win (and they have backers willing to keep feeding them money and weapons), and in larger part because nobody trusts a deal to be able to hold. Given the level of violence and the existential threats that various sides have been making towards each other, I think she's probably right - the basic need for security and the ability to trust that you won't be wiped off the map tomorrow are in short supply, and that gap needs to be filled before there can be any other kind of progress.

But as much as this may very well be the best of a bad lot of potential solutions, it seems that we've heard this tune before. In late 1995 outside powers pressured the warring factions within Bosnia - at the time the most violent and destructive conflict of its type in the world - into a deal that ended the fighting and stopped the killing largely by creating autonomous territories within a larger Bosnia. It is undeniable that many thousands of lives were saved by the Dayton Accords. It is also undeniable that, nearly 20 years on, the long-term, stable political solution they promised has not materialized. Bosnia today remains a mess, captive to the ethnic autonomous structures that enabled an end to the fighting in the first place.

People will argue - correctly - that Syria is not Bosnia. I would argue that it's worse, because the cleavages are not only ethnonationalist (Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds) but ideological as well (ISIS vs. the al-Nusra front). Nevertheless, it is possible to imagine something along the lines of what Walter is suggesting - dividing up the territory of Syria into autonomous zones so each population can have its own haven of relative safety. It may well be that the massive movements of refugees we have seen are already beginning to create that reality on the ground.

But as much as Walter may be right - this may be the only way to stop the fighting short of a LOT more death, which seems the most probably outcome - the Bosnia experience suggests a dilemma here. In the midst of crisis we often want to do whatever is necessary to end the crisis and stop the bleeding, because that means thousands if not millions of lives are saved. But the short-term fixes may make long-term stability and governance harder, not easier, and may lead to long-term suffering of different kinds - corruption, poverty, despair, and instability that might eventually lead back to war. Certainly today's Sarajevo has not made the progress that many hoped it would.

So what to do? The classical nature of a dilemma is that it has no solution. Either the crisis continues, with massive amounts of casualties in the short run, but hopefully eventually produces a stable solution from which progress is possible; or someone steps in to alter the situation in the short run so that fewer people die, but in the process condemns the country to generations of poverty and crappy governance (at best). This is a nasty choice, if choice it is at all. Barbara Walter may be right - her suggestion may be the only not-so-bad solution possible. If so, that's a terrible thing.

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