Opinion

Syria not yet at war's end

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Opinion,James Jay Carafano,Op-Eds,Syria

"I have said this 38,000 times: ... This tragedy is not something that can be settled from the outside, and it's about damn well time that everybody understood that." — Lawrence Eagleburger, 1992

Then-Secretary of State Eagleburger spoke some hard truths about the Bosnian War. One year into that conflict, he observed: "Until the Bosnians, Serbs and Croats decide to stop killing each other, there is nothing the outside world can do about it."

But things changed in 1995. The Croatians launched a major offensive and, for the first time, the Serbians suffered a major military setback.

As long as the Serbs were rolling up victory upon victory, there was no hope of getting them to the negotiating table. Now things were different.

It was, chief U.S. peace negotiator Richard Holbrooke wrote in his memoir, "a classic illustration of the fact that the diplomatic landscape will usually reflect the balance of forces on the ground." Holbrooke and his team set to work negotiating what became the Dayton Peace Accords.

The Bosnian War holds some lessons about what we can and can't do regarding the current conflict in Syria.

The NATO bombings, the accords and NATO boots on the ground occurred after the sides had fought to a military stalemate and after the horrific "ethnic cleansing" had largely died down.

Additionally, the outside forces that had helped fuel the conflict were no longer tossing gasoline to keep the fire burning. (Arab states, for example, had ceased smuggling weapons to Bosnian Muslims.)

Those resolution-ready conditions are nowhere near present in Syria today.

The Assad regime and the various insurgent groups aren't done fighting — not by a long shot. Non-combatant civilians, trapped between the warring factions, are still being slaughtered.

Outside forces such as Hezbollah and Iran are actively working to widen the conflict. Meanwhile, Moscow is doing all it can to prop up the has-been strongman Assad, even as it pretends that it main interest is the pursuit of peace.

Clearly, Syria is not yet "ripe" for a Bosnian-style solution. Yet advocates of the UN "responsibility to protect" (or R2P) initiative insist that, since Syria faces a humanitarian crisis, national or international force — military and diplomatic — must be brought to bear.

The sentiment is noble. But R2P activists are living in la-la land. The military situation on the ground is far from being resolved. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia see no advantage in winding down the conflict.

And, even if they did, it wouldn't cut off the al Qaeda pipeline of support and foreign fighters.

Given those unpromising conditions, increasingly risk-averse Western powers have no inclination to jump into the Syrian conflict. At most, they may give in to the "do something" impulse by okaying some ineffectual, "feel-good" military acts — like the 1994 "pinprick" bombings of the Udbina airbase in Serb-controlled Croatia.

But when it comes to Syria, the U.S. can't impose peace; it can only help prepare for it.

Washington can help facilitate aid that keeps Syrian freedom fighters in the field and mitigates human suffering. It can do its best to make life miserable for Hezbollah and Iran.

It can stop kowtowing to the Russians. It can pressure the Gulf States to work against and not in the interests of al Qaeda. And it can demonstrate a commitment to being a strong force for good in the region — militarily and diplomatically — by not withdrawing.

Washington should do all these things because it serves U.S. interests to see the Syrian tragedy come to a peaceful and just resolution.

What Washington cannot do at the moment is make Syria 2013 look like Bosnia 1995.

JAMES JAY CARAFANO, Washington Examiner Columnist is Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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