Moscow is sending three warships to back the regime. Washington has made it known that the CIA is aiding the rebels. Talks aimed at a peace deal or surrender have broken down. And the United Nations Security Council is deadlocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes, raising the spectre of a long and ugly conflict.
That is Syria today, but it also happens to sound a lot like Kosovo in 1999. Then, as now, a bloody guerrilla struggle against the increasingly violent actions of a strongman leader became a symbolically loaded conflict of wills between the United States and Russia, and as a result the United Nations was unable to play any useful role.
After former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan resigned in frustration on Thursday as the UN-appointed negotiator between Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and opposition rebels, the comparisons to the Kosovo conflict became even more acute.
Indeed, Mr. Annan’s successor as UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, last week made reference to the West’s failure to act in the Balkan conflicts in calling for a negotiated resolution over Syria. And it now appears that Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president who became the key negotiator between Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and the Kosovo Albanian rebels in 1999, may be taking Mr. Annan’s place this time.
As it has become another proxy war between Western-backed and Russian-backed forces without any UN authorization, Syria now has the potential to become as ugly and intractable as the Balkan conflicts were – without the likelihood of either a surrender or an intervention by Western militaries. But, unlike 13 years ago, this time neither the West nor Russia wants to become deeply involved in a potentially irresolvable conflict.
“I think this crisis is comparable to Kosovo,” said Richard Gowan of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. “The fundamental difference is that there is no credible NATO military option at this time.… and that emboldens Moscow. And I think that means that the crisis could be even more damaging, and potentially drag on for even longer.”
In 1999, Russia denounced the West’s efforts to back Kosovo’s Albanian-speaking, largely Muslim rebels as part of a plot to undermine Russian Slavic influence, and threw its support behind Mr. Milosevic, even seizing a Kosovo airfield at one point. The NATO air campaign (conducted without UN authorization) in which Canada participated, eventually brought victory to Kosovo’s rebels and helped destabilize Mr. Milosevic.
Syria, like Serbia before, has long been a bulwark of Moscow’s influence – Russia keeps a navy port there and has long backed Mr. al-Assad as a key instrument of Russian influence in the Middle East. In Russia and its allies, the Syrian rebels are widely seen as agents of a Western plot to seize Mideast influence and threaten Iran.
Aside from the unlikelihood of Western bombs falling on Damascus this time, there are two important differences between Kosovo and Syria, and they could extend the Syrian conflict.
The first is that while Mr. Milosevic was ultimately willing to negotiate an end to the 1999 conflict – ceding military control of Kosovo and his wider Yugoslavia in order to attempt to keep control of Serbia – Mr. al-Assad has no such compromise option, as he would lose Syria entirely.
The second is that while Russia in 1999 was a lone dissenter on the Security Council (then-leader Boris Yeltsin, even after once threatening a nuclear war over Kosovo, was not seen as capable of serious action), there is now a significant anti-Western bloc, dominated by Russia and China in tandem, opposing such actions. These countries allowed the passage last year of UN support for the NATO backing of rebels in Libya, but many members, including Russia, felt that Western countries went too far in Libya and have vowed not to let it happen again.
But Russia’s greater influence – seen in president Vladimir Putin’s outright rejection of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts at reconciliation at a meeting during the Olympics, and his decision to send three warships to Syria the next day – does not necessarily put Russia in a desirable position.
After all, two rather grim truths underlie the Syria conflict, truths learned from Kosovo and subsequent conflicts: First, the United States does not want its backing of the rebels to extend into an outright military engagement that could easily become intractable. And second, Russia does not really want to tie itself to Mr. al-Assad whose demise is imminent – although it may be forced to do so.
“I think that the Russians have got themselves trapped in an extremely bad position,” said Dr. Gowan. “I have no doubt that the Russian officials know that Assad will eventually fall, they know that they are putting their interests in the Middle East at risk. But they know that they have invested so much in Assad that they cannot back down. … At some point – and I think there are parallels to Kosovo here – when Assad’s position becomes absolutely untenable, and when his regime is falling apart, Russia will at that point return to the Security Council ad want to open negotiations on how to manage the end of the Assad regime.”
And that is another crucial difference: Nobody genuinely appears to back Mr. al-Assad. Russian officials have made it clear that they will not accept a surrender in which he is exiled to Moscow, because he is considered “poison” – an expensive liability of the sort that Russia does not need now.
And Washington is relying on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm the rebels, with covert U.S. technical support, because few in the West believe that Sunni-majority forces will produce a desirable outcome, and many believe they will commit atrocities as acts of revenge.
As a reminder, there are still NATO, UN and European Union soldiers and officials stationed in Kosovo, 13 years after that conflict, dealing with periodic flare-ups of ethnic violence. That is enough to prevent either Washington or Moscow from seeking a rerun.