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Syria Is Not Bosnia

Daniel Trombly reminds us how different the military situation in Bosnia was from present-day Syria:

The combined Croatian and Bosnian force which participated in Operation Storm had perhaps as many as 150,000 soldiers (mostly Croatian). Supporting them were over 350 tanks and 500 artillery pieces, along with dozens of aircraft and helicopters. This was against Serb forces numbering perhaps 50,000 with roughly similar numbers of tanks, artillery pieces, and aircraft.

In other words, in sheer mass of personnel, the Croats and Bosniaks mustered about three times the number of their opponents, and had similar – if not, with the support of MPRI factored in, better – levels of training and organizational competency. Reducing the end of the Bosnian war to a happy narrative about planes and safe zones not only ignores the utter failure of the safe zone components, but the fact that victory on the ground was often earned by the conventional military superiority of the Croatians and Bosnians themselves [bold mine-DL]. They did not operate as guerrillas with portable anti-vehicular missiles, they arrayed armor and artillery and formations of basically competent troops that generally matched or over-matched the quality and quantity of their opponents. Even with air power, it still took major conventional military offensives to ultimately secure and relieve the safe areas humanitarian intervention had nominally established. As always, in a war, regardless of the objective, basic strategic logic and logistical realities still apply.

If I had to guess, I suspect the reason that interventionists tend to minimize or forget the importance of Operation Storm in forcing a settlement in Bosnia is that it contradicts the story that Westerners tell about Bosnia as one of the obviously “good” interventions of the 1990s. This story leaves out what happened to the Krajina Serbs, and it treats the resolution of the Bosnian War as if it were simply a matter of Western governments summoning up enough willpower to halt the violence. This is the mythical version of the Bosnian intervention that is now cited so frequently as proof of what “we” can do in Syria.

Trombly adds that there are parallels to be found between interventionist proposals to arm Syrian rebels and U.S. policy in Nicaragua in the 1980s, but that isn’t terribly reassuring for Syrians:

Regardless, what happened in Nicaragua is a good counterpoint to narratives about foreign support for the rebels. U.S. military support resulted not in a quick toppling of a shaky government, but a nearly decade long continuation of the civil war culminating in a campaign of assassination and intimidation, under which Nicaraguan citizens chafing under decades of sanctions voted knowing that keeping the FSLN in power would perpetuate a devastating civil war. This political outcome, from a humanitarian standpoint, was worse than useless – it was counterproductive. Dragging out a civil war is unlikely to protect civilian livelihoods, or prevent further human rights abuses. Instead, both the FSLN and the Contras were able to continually justify assassinations, torture, kidnapping, mass rape, and all manner of other odious behaviors.

Arming rebels in Syria doesn’t serve any humanitarian purpose in Syria, nor do most of its advocates maintain the pretense that this is their concern any longer. Even so, there is not much for the U.S. to gain in providing arms to forces over which our government has no control. As Trombly writes, once rebels are armed they are not going to adhere to U.S.-imposed rules:

How on earth is the U.S. going to hold a guerrilla commander in the field accountable? If he oversees an atrocity, what is the U.S. to do? Send in Special Activities to take his machineguns and recoilless rifles away? Have his CO relieve him of duty? If Syrian rebels choose to undertake summary executions, reprisal killings, torture, kidnapping, and rape, what can the U.S. do to stop them? Even if it chooses to stop shipments of arms, it will have no way of recalling the arms it already sent. Such a question is likely academic, as the rebels will always appear the lesser evil and arms shipments would probably continue anyway.

The reprisals and crimes Trombly mentions here may happen anyway as part of a sectarian civil war, but what I still don’t understand is why so many Americans want the U.S. to be associated with them. Trombly reaches a similar conclusion:

Though less spectacularly dangerous than direct military intervention, arming Syria’s rebels is still a dangerous course of action with very little to commend it and even more to condemn it.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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