Making the Case for Showing Up: Kosovo and Syria

The following post is adapted from a longer paper examining the failures of the US-led NATO intervention in Kosovo.

Today, the city of Aleppo officially fell to the armed forces of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad.

As the siege of Aleppo went on, the world watched -- and drew comparisons to earlier humanitarian catastrophes in which the international community failed to act. Scholars, pundits, and armchair strategists were quick to draw parallels between US inaction in the early days of the Balkans crisis. Yet relatively few have considered what our “victory” in Kosovo should have meant for Aleppo.

Showing Up is Half the Battle

Held up as a beacon of the 'responsibility to protect' and the power of consensus and cooperation, we choose to remember Operation Allied Forces, the NATO code name for the intervention in Kosovo, as a successful show of international force that swiftly ended a conflict and prevented a massive humanitarian and refugee crisis.

The United States was slow to act in Kosovo, relying on coercive diplomacy against Milosevic when evidence continued to suggest it was the wrong tactic. Only after millions of refugees and the widely covered massacre of innocent civilians in Racak that left the "red line" explicitly drawn by both President Bush (41) and President Clinton in the years-distant past did military force enter the equation.

NATO planned for a 3-5-day air campaign, but it took 78 days to end the conflict. By removing the use of ground troops as an option and conducting only high-altitude missions, NATO forces limited their capabilities and effectiveness against Milosevic, dragging on the conflict even further. There were clear strategic mistakes, but they are largely overlooked in favor of a rosier view with the select inclusion of some tactical accidents, like the unintentional bombing of the Chinese embassy.

Said another way- the intervention in Kosovo was a strategic, operational, and tactical blunder that somehow succeeded in ending a humanitarian crisis.

Yet at the end of the day, the US did intervene in Kosovo, and that made all the difference. Aleppo is what we were afraid of in the Balkans, but we let it happen anyway. 

Kosovo and Syria- The Run Up

Motivated to eventual action by the fear of greater instability in the Balkans, the need to maintain US-NATO credibility, and an intangible moral reflex to respond in the face of crisis, we remember Kosovo as a time when might succeeded in making right. We overlook the years of inaction in the run up to US military involvement, and argue President Clinton, Congress, and the American people were deeply committed to the humanitarian mission from the start.

In the case of Kosovo, the UN and US were in fact deeply committed to a political resolution to prevent a power vacuum, even when experience and events made it clear Milosevic would not acquiesce. The same can be said of international goals in Syria and in dealing with Assad more generally.

While leading members of President Clinton's national security apparatus pushed for military intervention, Clinton hesitated because of perceived resistance to action from Congress. Similarly, key voices argued for early intervention in Syria under President Obama. President Obama responded by putting the onus on Congress, showing a willingness to act only with congressional support.

Racak and Aleppo

In Kosovo, international media coverage reached a breaking point with the Racak massacre. In the days following US policy formally changed to consider military action. The media coverage is cited as a cornerstone in building political will, even at the height of Clinton's impeachment scandal.

In the following months, US-led troops eventually forced Milosevic to the bargaining table. Kosovo regained its autonomy and Kosovars started to return. In 2008, Kosovo became a recognized independent nation. In fact, there is a massive monument to Clinton for his leadership against Milosevic. Attitudes towards the US and its allies are almost entirely positive and the international community considers Kosovo the crisis that could have been.

Despite incredible traditional and social media coverage of the carnage in Aleppo- a scale far greater than in Racak, the US and its allies still show no evidence of an impending intervention. There will be no monument to President Obama, and attitudes towards the US will not suddenly brighten after decades of decay in the region.

The Power of Collective Memory

In many ways, military intervention in Kosovo could never be truly successful because it aimed to prevent a crisis already well underway. 

Despite the years of inaction, millions of refugees and internally displaced people, and minimal commitment of NATO forces, the intervention in Kosovo is still remembered as a victory to be proud of. It exists in history separate from Clinton's impeachment scandal even though they occupied the same news cycle. When you ask people about Kosovo, no one says "what a waste." Any lack of public and congressional support, real or perceived, is erased by the success of the intervention. 

As ethicist and top-notch war wager LTG Jim Dubik, ret. discusses in Just Wars Revisited, we do not loose our moral agency in the fighting and waging of war. 

There are times where you act because it is what is right, not what is convenient or easy. Syria is one of those times. 

In Kosovo, the US and its allies were able to hid their strategic miscalculations and tactical mistakes without loosing to Milosevic and his ideals. The margin of error was such that it could accommodate years of inaction while still achieving a decisive military and political victory in a relatively short period of time.

The collective memory of the intervention in Kosovo as a complete and total success erased the real lesson- that credibility matters and means nothing without repercussions for crossing it. In its haste to celebrate a victory clutched from the jaws of defeat, the US failed to learn lessons from its inaction and instead enabled the kind of humanitarian crisis in Syria it wanted to avoid in Kosovo.

This is what we forgot. This is the lesson we failed to learn for Aleppo. We forgot that if you do the right thing, even when it seems unpopular, popular opinion changes when you succeed. You must succeed - and that's the tricky part.

It is the victory we remember- not the floundering.