The devastating conflict in Syria and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia have a lot in common in the eyes of US hardliners, who have repeatedly called for unleashing Washington’s military power to force Bashar al-Assad to agree to what the US wants. Hawks think that this approach worked in Yugoslavia and will thus work in Syria. It did not.

The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia failed to produce a stable and peaceful region just like it did not resolve ethnic and religious grievances that fueled local wars. True, no armed hostilities are taking place in what used to be a multinational state, but those wounds and new tensions that US-led Operation Noble Anvil created are simmering.Yet 51 State Department diplomats involved in shaping Washington’s strategy on Syria recently urged the Obama administration to add a military component to their diplomatic pressure on al-Assad. In other words, they want the White House to send cruise missiles and drop bombs on Damascus-led forces.

The State Department “dissenters” called it “the judicious use of stand-off and air weapons” that is meant to serve as the base of “a more militarily assertive US role in Syria.” This way, the memo said, the US-led diplomatic process will become “more focused and hardnose.”

Smoke billows over the northern Yugoslav city of Novi Sad, some 70 kms. north of Belgrade after NATO air raids late Wednesday March 24, 1999.
© AP Photo/ str
Smoke billows over the northern Yugoslav city of Novi Sad, some 70 kms. north of Belgrade after NATO air raids late Wednesday March 24, 1999.

Critics say that the 1999 Yugoslavia bombing could not serve as a blueprint or a justification for a similar campaign in Syria. The war-torn Arab country is too diverse to carve out ethnic states in a region plagued by sectarian violence.

“If you map [Syria] out, it’s a nightmare. If it comes apart, it could come apart in many different pieces,” Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, told the Atlantic in 2013. “And many of those pieces overlap with conflicts next door.”

This is still true today. Sending cruise missiles against the Syrian Arab Army will weaken one of the few forces that have proved to be an efficient ground force capable of standing against Daesh and other terrorist groups. With the SAA gone or in decline, jihadists, including al-Nusra Front, will be emboldened to grab power.In this scenario “the most radical elements would quickly overpower the alleged moderates that the United States perhaps erroneously believes that it is supporting, leading to even more atrocities directed against religious non-conformists and minority groups,” former CIA counterterrorism officer Philip Giraldi warned.

This version of the future does not look like a happily ever after anyone would want for Syria. Yet it is the most likely outcome of an anti-Assad campaign.

Syrian allies, Russia and Iran, are also a major factor to consider. Some say that the parallel with Yugoslavia is “flawed” because Moscow and Tehran will not sit idly while Washington assaults a country it is not even in war with.

Limited military strikes might seem like a viable and relatively safe mechanism to further political ends, but they do not necessarily produce a predictable outcome.

NATO’s former supreme allied commander, Wesley Clark, who directed the 1999 operation against Serbia, once cautioned that “you can’t always control the script after you decide to launch a limited, measured attack.”

The retired general was referring to a 1993 cruise missile strike on Saddam Hussein’s intelligence center in Baghdad. The operation hardly made Iraq’s late strongman more cooperative.

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