It’s increasingly likely that after two and a half years on the sidelines, the U.S. is going to intervene in Syria’s civil war. The Obama administration says there’s little doubt that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own citizens, killing as many as 1,000, and this time the world isn’t going to wait for proof. The U.S.’s European allies have been even more bellicose. France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asserted that the massacre demands “a reaction of force” by the international community. British Foreign Minister William Hague says “the use of chemical weapons on a large scale like this cannot go unaddressed,” regardless of whether or not the U.N. Security Council authorizes military action.
As they edge toward punishing Assad, the U.S. and its allies point to a template for what the intervention would look like: NATO’s 78-day bombardment of Serbia in 1999 in response to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo carried out by forces loyal to then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. A senior administration official told the New York Times on Aug. 23 that “Kosovo … is a precedent” for a military campaign without U.N. authorization. Kosovo’s minister of foreign affairs, Enver Hoxhaj, argues that the “NATO intervention in Kosovo serves as a model for our allies in the West and the Arab world to end Syrian suffering.”
There are good reasons why the Kosovo campaign has captured the imagination of those studying options in Syria. Most obviously, it was carried out over the objections of Russia, which was Serbia’s biggest benefactor in the late 1990s, as it is for Assad today. NATO’s bombs succeeded in driving Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo and halting their rampage against ethnic Albanian civilians, which claimed the lives of 10,000 and displaced as many as 800,000. The conflict required no land invasion, produced no Western casualties, and cost less than $5 billion—about one-thousandth the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Milosevic was indicted for war crimes and died in the Hague; an 11-foot-high statue of Bill Clinton now stands in the Kosovar capital of Pristina.
For liberal hawks—including those now serving in the Obama administration—the Kosovo war was the high-water mark of humanitarian interventionism. Yet for all its merits, the Kosovo example is a cautionary one. Though no U.S. lives were lost, the air campaign over Serbia wasn’t bloodless: Some 500 civilians were killed by NATO strikes, including three Chinese journalists who died when U.S. warplanes mistakenly hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The end of hostilities signaled the start of an open-ended NATO peacekeeping mission that continues to this day, and even the presence of tens of thousands of allied troops wasn’t enough to prevent former officers in the Kosovo Liberation Army from engaging in horrific acts of criminality. Nor did the West’s intervention force Milosevic from power: He held on for a further year and a half and was ousted only after he tried to steal an election. The governments of Kosovo and Serbia signed an accord last April to begin the process of normalizing relations. This took them a mere 14 years.
It’s impossible to predict whether it will take that long for Syria’s warring camps to resolve their differences. (It will probably take longer.) What the Kosovo example does underscore, however, is that even overwhelming air power has limits—and that the U.S. shouldn’t labor under illusions that it can swiftly end the war in Syria without a more robust and costly commitment to defeating Assad. Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, advocates off-shore missile strikes to destroy Assad’s chemical-weapons capabilities but says “I don’t believe this ought to be used to heavily influence the outcome within Syria. That would just get us going down the road of being enmeshed in a civil conflict there.” Instead, the administration should “make good on what the president said he’d do several months ago and provide arms to those elements of the Syrian opposition that espouse agendas the U.S. can live with.”
That strategy, too, is fraught with risks, including the high likelihood that those weapons will someday end up in the hands of rebel groups with ties to al-Qaeda. But it still may be the most palatable on a menu of unappealing options. There are lessons worth learning from NATO’s limited war in Kosovo. Just don’t expect to see any statues of Obama in Damascus.