Syria isn’t Kosovo and this isn’t 1999. Not even close

Grasping at vague notions of Kosovo as a ‘good war’ may be expedient - any precedent will do in a pinch. But this comparison is inaccurate and dangerously misleading.

“The Balkans have long been the last surviving shred of happy-hunting ground for the adventurous,” a place for “the old-time happy-go-lucky wars”.  Saki (H.H. Munro), The Cupboard of the Yesterdays

Western leaders and their advisors have alighted on NATO’s 1999 attack on Yugoslavia as a precedent for military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Among many others, Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s Foreign Minister, argues that the NATO campaign is a model for handling Syria in an article in Foreign Policy titled “It’s 1999 in Syria”. Slate’s Joshua Keating concludes it could nonetheless rally dispirited Americans with memories of days combining “high-minded ideals and overwhelming firepower”.

The exploitation of the NATO/Serbia conflict has revived questions about the legitimacy and legality of that campaign. This is an important debate, but those looking for a ‘useable past’ in the Balkans should also assess if the comparison of 1999 Serbia with 2013 Syria is itself accurate? The short answer: absolutely not, and it’s dangerously misleading.

The Serbia/Kosovo armed conflict was an ugly but straightforward territorial dispute between two mirror-image nationalisms. Outside involvement, aside from NATO’s, was minimal as was the risk of serious spillover. The western powers’ end-game - detaching Kosovo from Serbia - was obvious, if legally questionable. The Syrian civil/regional war contains none of these stabilizing factors. Apples are being compared not to oranges but to cobras.

What happened in 1999

Kosovo, with a population around 2 million, was a province of Serbia which, with Montenegro, comprised the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Both Serbs and Kosovar Albanians considered Kosovo sacred ancestral territory. Yugoslavia had long treated the Kosovars poorly even as their share in Kosovo’s population grew to 90% by the 1990s; repression dramatically increased under Slobodan Milosevic. After years of futile non-violent resistance, Kosovars formed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and began an armed struggle. Violence escalated in 1998 and the Kosovar diaspora masterfully used Serbian repression to sway western public and elite opinion.  Attempts at resolution foundered on irreconcileable demands: Serbia required the province to remain part of Serbia and Kosovars insisted on independence. 

After Russia and China vowed to veto any UN resolution authorizing the use of force, the US and UK led NATO members to begin a bombing campaign on March 24.  Bombers struck military and civilian infrastructure targets, such as bridges and post offices, throughout Serbia. As Belgrade hung tough, NATO increased its firepower. Collateral damage ensued, including the bombing of a Serbian passenger train, a Kosovar refugee camp and the Chinese Embassy. 

Serbia, with a cherished national myth of doomed valor, held out longer than many expected, raising the prospect of a difficult debate over the need for a ground invasion. But after 78 days Milosevic sued for peace and the FRY agreed to withdraw its armed forces from Kosovo, allowing in a NATO-led peacekeeping force, UN administration and de facto independence. In 2008, the US and other western powers backed Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence and again sidelined the UN Security Council to avoid a Russian veto.

A binary war: brutal but straightforward

The following elements in the Serbia/Kosovo conflict made it resolvable. Syria differs in every respect:

- The KLA was united and had very strong support from Kosovar Albanians, who overwhelmingly populated a clearly-defined territory. The Kosovar side had a specific, limited goal: independence for this territory. They had no interest in marching to Belgrade, overthrowing Milosevic or altering the FRY or Serbian structures other than detaching Kosovo. Post-conflict, Kosovars universally welcomed NATO and UN peacekeepers as allies in consolidating their liberation.  

- Both sides were driven by classic nationalist “patriotism”. Religion served as a key marker of national identity rather than a driving motive for action. Serbs didn’t want to launch a crusade for Christendom nor Kosovars a jihad to restore the Caliphate or impose sharia law. While each side believed its culture superior, they were clashing over physical control of the plains of Kosovo, not to alter the course of civilization. 

- The absence of regional and global entanglements kept the war limited. Two immediate neighbors were involved: Albania served as a staging area for the KLA and Macedonia worried about its own restive Albanians. Refugee flows seriously, though temporarily, impacted both countries but no further spillover threatened. Milosevic wanted to contain the separatists, not expand the conflict, while foreign fighters and states -Muslim or otherwise - played no significant role. No one had WMD.  No element of the world economy was affected.

- The west in 1999 brimmed with confidence, as NATO added three new members - the first from the former Warsaw Pact - and the EU prepared to launch the euro. Building on successful peacekeeping in post-conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO was open to “out of area” missions in the Balkans as part of its post-Cold War transformation. There was no global recession, no war in Afghanistan, no constant alert for terrorism.

- Russia, reeling from financial crises and Boris Yeltsin’s erratic leadership, was powerless to stop the bombing campaign once the Security Council had been marginalized.  And despite self-promotion as Serbia’s protector, Moscow has never put the Balkans in the top tier of its concerns. 

Grasping at vague notions of Kosovo as a ‘good war’ may be expedient -any precedent will do in a pinch. Certainly leaders favoring intervention in Syria are struggling to escape parallels to Iraq, as UK Prime Minister Cameron discovered on August 29. Today’s policymakers and pundits may also suffer from misconceptions about and plain ignorance of the 1990s Yugoslav wars, now fading into the mists for all but a few Balkanists. But no one should make facile assumptions that there are any significant similarities between Kosovo in 1999 and Syria today. That would be reckless disregard for the facts and, as John Adams said, facts are stubborn things.

About the author

Elisabeth Brocking spent 22 years in the US Foreign Service, focusing on interethnic conflicts in the Balkans and post-Soviet states.  Views expressed are entirely her own.