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Why It Matters That Syria Isn’t Bosnia

Micah Zenko revisits sloppy comparisons between Bosnia and Syria:

It is true that the Serbian attacks were halted in large part because of the 1,026 bombs dropped on 48 Bosnian Serb target complexes on 11 of the 17 days of NATO’s air campaign in August and September 1995. (It is often forgotten that NATO member-states’ special operations forces were deployed on the ground as forward air controllers to direct these strikes.) But the primary factor was the combined Bosnian Muslim-Croatian Army ground offensive that reduced the amount of territory controlled by the Serbian army from 70 percent to 45 percent before the Dayton peace talks began [bold mine-DL]. This offensive was supported by French and British ground forces belonging to NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force, who shelled the Bosnian Serbs’ Lukavica barracks near Sarajevo. Thus, while the lessons of airpower are retained, the boots on the ground required to tip the balance are forgotten.

There are a few reasons why this matters. Syria hawks emphasize only the use of Western airpower in Bosnia to create the illusion that a similar intervention in Syria is possible and that it would be relatively “easy,” low-risk, and very likely to succeed. Just as Iraq war supporters blithely assumed that post-war occupation and reconstruction would be successful because “we did it in Germany and Japan” while ignoring all the things that made Iraq different from these countries and failing to do many of the things that made U.S. post-WWII efforts successful, some Syria hawks invoke the Bosnia example while omitting the most important factor in bringing the war there to an end. It is necessary for these Syria hawks to omit this because nothing like this Bosnian-Croatian offensive is available to the opposition in the Syrian conflict. Acknowledging its importance in Bosnia would make the comparison useless, and Bosnia is the preferred example of a “good” intervention from the ’90s that its supporters thinks can be emulated elsewhere. It is useful maintain the fiction that the Bosnian War was ended through air strikes alone in order to demand military intervention while ruling out the use of ground forces, since even these Syria hawks know that talk of sending soldiers into Syria is a non-starter in Western and allied countries.

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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