WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama considers military strikes against Syria — and how to square them with international law — his advisers are reportedly looking at the 1999 NATO air war in Kosovo as a precedent.
There’s only one minor problem: The Kosovo war was nothing like the Syrian conflict.
According to The New York Times, White House aides are now studying the Kosovo campaign to determine whether the strategies used then to circumvent the U.N. Security Council — and particularly Russia, a veto-wielding member — might be applicable today, as the U.S. again weighs military intervention in a bloody struggle overseas. But the Kosovo analogy is riddled with pitfalls — especially in terms of Obama’s desire to prevent the deployment of ground troops.
On its face, the chain of events in Kosovo appears alluringly similar to those in Syria. The two stories even come with their own villains: Slobodan Milosevic and Bashar Assad. During the late 1990s, Milosevic’s Serbs stood accused of systematic crimes against humanity — including massacres and forced displacement — perpetrated against Kosovo’s Albanians. Now, Assad’s security forces are alleged to have used chemical weapons against a stronghold belonging to the rebels, most of whom are Sunnis. Then, as now, Western powers observed the violence, condemned it wholesale, and dithered while it escalated. A Western desire to do something — though exactly what is unclear — runs through both cases.
But from there, the Kosovo campaign begins to diverge from today’s talk of intervention in Syria. First, the intervention in Kosovo was far more ambitious than anything likely to be launched in Syria. NATO entered the conflict with five primary objectives: the end of combat and killings in Kosovo; Serb military withdrawal from the region; the deployment of peacekeepers; the return of refugees and humanitarian aid; and a political framework for Kosovo based on a previous agreement aimed at greater autonomy for the province. In Syria, the administration has gone to great lengths to emphasize the limited nature of potential military strikes — stressing that there will be no “boots on the ground” and that any action is strictly in retaliation for chemical weapons use. In Kosovo, by contrast, NATO launched a campaign that essentially aimed to release Kosovo from the Serbs’ grip.
On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry presented the White House’s case for a military strike in Syria, which appeared to rest firmly on the desire to halt the use of chemical weapons — and not much else. But shortly after Kerry’s remarks, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney went behind the White House podium to explain “that ultimately Assad has to step aside to allow for a better future for the Syrian people.” Once strikes begin in Syria, the desire to implement the broader political goal of Assad’s removal — so long stymied by Russia’s diplomatic maneuvering — may prove irresistible. Here, the Kosovo example will only lead the U.S. down the road of another costly, lengthy military commitment.
The dynamics that might produce such an outcome have already materialized. With limited military options on the table, Washington’s foreign policy mandarins are forcefully making the case for why a small-scale intervention will fail to produce the outcome the United States seeks. “Limited military involvement isn’t going to produce an outcome,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon told Politico, referring to the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Expect a lot more of that once the CNN live-feed of explosions in Damascus goes on air.
Today, NATO’s campaign in Kosovo is remembered as an air war that crushed Milosevic’s resolve through precision weapons and military smarts, but that interpretation overlooks the crucial fact that the threat of a bona fide invasion played a key role in bringing Milosevic to the negotiating table. NATO thought that the Kosovo intervention would be short and that the Serbs would quickly crumble, but Serbia showed remarkable resilience despite intense NATO bombing. It took 78 days of sustained bombing to cow Milosevic into talks. But those talks only occurred after skirmishes with the Kosovo Liberation Army forced their opponents to operate in the open, which allowed NATO’s air forces to inflict heavy losses on the Serbs. At the same time, NATO gave permission to U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark to widen Albanian roads leading to Kosovo — a move that sent Milosevic a clear message: NATO was preparing a ground invasion.
While the bombing played a key role in defeating the Serbs, NATO failed to win the Kosovo War through air power alone. The intervention resulted in a ground deployment under which Kosovo became more or less a U.N. protectorate. The peacekeeping force is known as KFOR — short for Kosovo Force — and remains there to this day. Tasked with maintaining the fragile peace between Serbia and Kosovo, the force numbers some 5,500 troops and includes a contingent of 800 U.S. soldiers. It’s a reality the White House should keep in mind.
As the White House considers not so much whether it will strike Syria but how, Kosovo’s appeal as a precedent for Obama and his advisers is clear. Credited with saving lives even if it increased violence in the short term, the Kosovo War is remembered as a noble intervention — a time when the West acted on its principles and tried to prevent mass violence. It’s a sentiment the administration has echoed in recent days, as when Kerry spoke of the “moral obscenity” of Assad’s chemical weapons use.
But if Obama wants to deliver on those principles — as NATO at least partially did in Kosovo — he may end up having to do a lot more than fire some missiles.
Elias Groll is assistant editor of Foreign Policy magazine.