WASHINGTON — Diplomats who were involved in the West’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 say the situation offers little precedent for the Obama administration’s planned attack on Syria, despite comparisons in the press.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that President Obama’s “national security aides are studying the NATO air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for acting without a mandate from the United Nations.”
Balkans hands from the late 1990s say the situations bear little resemblance and that the example of Kosovo shouldn’t serve as a model for action in Syria.
“The similarities between what we did in Kosovo and what is now being proposed in Syria are exactly zero,” said Peter Galbraith, the former Ambassador to Croatia and close ally of the late Richard Holbrooke. “The situations are completely different. In Kosovo, we had a partner. In Syria, we don’t. Kosovo is small, Syria is large.”
Former Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, a U.S. Special Envoy to Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, said: “I want to stress that there was a very big difference between Kosovo and Syria.”
“In Kosovo we had political arrangements that had been agreed on by the Contact Group plan,” Hill said. “We worked assiduously with Europeans, Russians and others to come up with a political solution.”
“At the end of the day the Serbs refused to go along with it and in so refusing they were very much isolated,” Hill said. “At the end, as ethnic cleansing continued, we hit them and hit them hard.”
“We had a broad group of countries supporting us in Kosovo,” Hill said, despite not managing to obtain a United Nations Security Council resolution. “I think in Syria we don’t have that support.”
Robert Gelbard, a former U.S. Envoy to Kosovo who warned Slobodan Milosevic about possible NATO intervention in 1998, was an early proponent of air war in the Balkans.
“I frankly was one of the hawks along with General Wesley Clark,” Gelbard said. “But Richard Holbrooke, in particular, kept assuring people he could negotiate a peaceful solution.”
“That’s quite different from this situation,” Gelbard said. “Nobody thinks they can negotiate a peaceful solution [in Syria] except the Russians.”
Gelbard pointed out that the intervention in Kosovo came after sustained efforts on the part of the international community to negotiate an agreement between the two sides, a scenario that hasn’t been true in Syria.
“By the time Kosovo came up, the U.S. had been deeply engaged in the region for a number of years,” Gelbard said. “The U.S. finally got involved in 1995 particularly after the Srebrenica massacre [in Bosnia in 1995]. Obviously, some people are comparing Srebrenica to the chemical weapons attack as a final straw.”
For Heather Hurlburt, a speechwriter for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the time, the comparison between Kosovo and Syria “is shorthand for a limited form of military intervention that got Russia to bring the recalcitrant party back to the table.”
“If something like that could work it would be a godsend for the people of Syria because I see a stalemate in the fighting for the foreseeable future, but people should realize that Kosovo didn’t happen overnight,” Hurlburt said.
And in today’s supercharged news cycle, anything longer than a few days could prove disastrous from a public relations perspective.
“Kosovo was pre-blogs and pre-Twitter, and criticism of the administration when we got into month three was pretty savage. We felt under enormous pressure in May of 1999,” said Hurlburt.
Despite the obvious differences, some who were involved in Kosovo in the 1990s argue that the campaign offers useful lessons for Syria. General Wesley Clark wrote an op-ed on Thursday arguing that “the Kosovo campaign can still be instructive in other respects because it offers lessons on expecting the unexpected and on improvising in the midst of a confrontation.”
“These episodes are always fluid, but so long as your political coalition is well organized — and NATO was — objectives can be modified and clarified during the course of military action,” Clark wrote. “Not every ‘I’ has to be dotted or ‘t’ crossed before initiating a strike.”
It doesn’t appear likely that a political coalition like the one that formed around Kosovo will come together here. International support for U.S. action in Syria took another hit on Thursday as the British parliament voted against United Kingdom involvement in the planned strikes, leaving the U.S. without one of its only potential military partners in the strikes.