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The Myth of Humanitarian Interventions

Why Kosovo Is (and Isn’t) a Precedent for Syria

by ZOLTAN GROSSMAN

Politicians and pundits backing a U.S. attack on Syria are making numerous analogies to the NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999, for its oppression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. In this role play, Syrian President Assad plays the role of Serbian President Milosevic, who have both massively violated human rights of civilians, and President Obama plays the role of President Clinton in advocating what they call “humanitarian intervention” (without authorization by the UN Security Council).

In many ways, the Syria-as-Kosovo analogy doesn’t hold at all, with vastly different geopolitical realities in the Balkans and Middle East, and different ethnic and sectarian histories. In other ways, the Syria-as-Kosovo analogy may hold, but perhaps not in the ways that pro-war politicians and pundits may be thinking.

Why the Syria-as-Kosovo analogy might hold:

First, the NATO intervention against Serbia in the Kosovo Crisis exacerbated exactly the humanitarian crisis it was supposedly trying to avoid. The civil war between Serbian forces and the ethnic Albanians of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had claimed about 2,000 lives in 1998. A Serbian massacre of Albanian civilians at Racak late that year triggered the drive toward a NATO response. But after the bombing began in February 1999, Serbian President Milosevic intensified the ethnic cleansing of Albanians, and began to systematically expel them from Kosovo. The number of deaths and refugees quickly skyrocketed. NATO Commanding General Wesley Clark later admitted that U.S. “military authorities fully anticipated the vicious approach that Milosevic would adopt.” In much the same way, a U.S. attack on Syria for allegedly carrying out the recent Ghouta attack could trigger exactly the humanitarian catastrophe it is supposedly intended to prevent. Using the idea of “use it or lose it,” President Assad could unleash his chemical weapons arsenal to secure a ghastly victory in the Syrian civil war, under the pretext of defending the country against foreign domination.

Second, the trajectories of the rebel movements in Kosovo and Syria have some historical similarities. Both started as nonviolent protest movements, on behalf of democracy and civil rights for a majority population (Albanians in Kosovo and Sunnis in Syria). The movement met harsh repression and ethnic/sectarian cleansing by the military, and some protesters turned to armed struggle. Once the armed struggle began, it attracted rebel fighters who did not believe in ethnic or sectarian pluralism, and advocated the forced removal of minority populations. Once the KLA came to power on the heels of the NATO occupation, it began to ethnically cleanse Serbs and Roma (Gypsies) from Kosovo. Syrian Islamist rebels have begun the sectarian cleansing of Alawite, Christian, and Kurdish villagers even before they take power.

Third, the Kosovo War created chemical and radiological contamination in Yugoslaviabut due to NATO bombing rather than any Serbian WMD. U.S. warplanes hit the Pancevo petrochemical plant in Pancevo, sending a toxic cloud with 2,000 tons of chemicals over the Serbian city on the Danube, and also released chemicals from other strikes on industrial plants and depots. NATO jets also use Depleted Uranium munitions, which it would surely do in Syria. If U.S. planes strike chemical arms depots (as it did in the 1991 Gulf War), the effects could be far more horrendous than Pancevo. If chaos in Syria worsens after a foreign intervention, chemical arms could fall into the hands of rebel fighters, who could use them to hit the Syrian Army or discredit the Syrian regime (if they haven’t done so already).

Why the Syria-as-Kosovo analogy doesn’t hold:

First, the Kosovo War was never a “humanitarian intervention,” as the prevailing mythology holds in the U.S. Even General Wesley Clark observed that the NATO bombing of Kosovo “was not designed as a means of blocking Serb ethnic cleansing….Not in any way. There was never any intent to do that.” Europeans better understand that yes, NATO intervened against nasty Serb ethnic cleansers in the Balkans, but on behalf of nasty Croat and Albanian ethnic cleansers. The U.S. turned a blind eye to the violations of human rights by its Balkan allies, and in some cases even enabled them. If a President Clinton did not consistently oppose human rights violations in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, why should we assume that President Obama will be more even-handed in Syria in the 2010s?

Second, Serbia didn’t have Weapons of Mass Destruction in 1999, and did not retaliate  against NATO outside of Yugoslavia. Syria does have WMD, and a history of retaliating against foreign intervention. Lest we forget: In 1983, the U.S. was at war with Syria in Lebanon, with U.S. warships shelling Syrian forces and allied Lebanese Shi’a militias, who retaliated with the successful truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Syria’s chemical weapons can be used to retaliate against NATO forces in Jordan or Turkey, or a neighbor that possesses both chemical and nuclear weapons: Israel. (When Syria was on the UN Security Council in 2003, it proposed that the Middle East become a WMD-Free Zone, a proposal that fell on deaf ears in Washington as a liability to Israel.)

Third, a “risk-free” air war in Syria can easily escalate into a regional ground war. When U.S. analysts talk about a Kosovo precedent for Syria, they aren’t talking about either WMD or protecting human rights. They’re really talking about the prospects for a war in which no Americans get killed. But air strikes on Syria will unpredictably affect the stability of its region, and could draw in U.S. ground forces, while the Kosovo War was largely contained within Yugoslavia.

Risk-Free War and the Iraq Syndrome

The concept of “Risk-Free War” began with Nixon’s 1969 switch to an air war against Vietnam (which reduced U.S. casualties but vastly increased Vietnamese civilian deaths), and Bush’s “surgical strikes” against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, which treated air strikes   as an impersonal video game. The concept took hold in Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Serbia, Obama’s 2011 air war in Libya, and drone strikes on Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond—all interventions in which no Americans have been killed.

If the antiwar movement focuses only on the prospects of U.S. soldiers returning home in bodybags, it actually legitimizes more technological forms of warfare that can lead to even greater suffering among civilians. It has never before happened in the history of warfare that an attacker can wage war without the fear of losing its own people. The U.S. is the first world power in human history that is shedding the deterrent of risk in war, and thereby believes it can attack other countries with impunity. Such a concept of Risk-Free War makes the carnage of war much more likely in the future, and it is therefore morally obscene to advocate for it.

Jean Bricmont’s book Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War should be required reading for antiwar activists in the days ahead, to build our understanding of “humanitarian” rationales for military action. Bricmont writes that the “barbarous customs” of foreign leaders have always been used as a central justification for colonialism. Bricmont’s point of view “readily admits the barbarous nature of such customs, but considers that our interventions do much more harm than good, including in relation to making barbarism recede. And it points out that there is a considerable amount of ‘barbarism’ in our own ‘civilized’ countries, especially as they interact with others.” He adds that “to call on an army to wage a war for human rights implies a naive belief of what armies are and do, as well as a magical belief in the myth of short, clean, ‘surgical’ wars.”

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. public developed an aversion to foreign intervention deemed the “Vietnam Syndrome,” which prevented direct U.S. invasions of Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s. President Bush’s Panama invasion and Gulf War spelled the end of the Vietnam Syndrome, enabling Clinton’s Balkan interventions in the 1990s. But after George W. Bush’s disastrous wars in the 2000s, U.S. (and British) citizens have again developed an aversion to war and occupation that could be called the “Iraq Syndrome.” For many of them, the current rhetoric around Syria remind them of the WMD lies leading to the Iraq War, made by Republican and Democratic officials alike. Hopefully, this healthy Iraq Syndrome will keep us out of another disastrous war in Syria.

Dr. Zoltan Grossman is a Professor of Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. His faculty website is http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz and email is grossmaz@evergreen.edu