Are there lessons from Bosnia for the Syria peace talks?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World."

"John Kerry: There is no way, no way possible in the imagination that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern."

Werman: Harsh words today from US Secretary of State John Kerry on what he thought about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad staying in power. Kerry's comment came after a tense first day of Syrian peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland. The talks did not get off to a good start and the sticking point is Assad's future. The Syrian government insists he must stay and the opposition, like Kerry, wants him out. Ivo Daalder is a former US ambassador to NATO. He says the outcome to these talks hinges on Assad's grip on power.

Daalder: Assad is not only in power, he has, over the past 6 or 7 months, been able to maneuver himself militarily in the situation where it is less likely that he will be defeated militarily, at least in the center of Damascus and the center of power in Syria. The dilemma is how do you get rid of the one guy who seems to be pretty firmly in place? How do you figure out a way towards that end? That is what the problem has always been in the peace conference and it will be the problem after the peace conference.

Werman: How do you stop the killing?

Daalder: Well, ultimately I think in a Civil war the killing gets stopped in 1 of 2 ways. Either the parties are so exhausted from having this fight, having this conflict, that they find a ceasefire and then some political modus vivendi that comes out of it, or one side in this conflict beats the other side and beats them pretty badly. Those are the two ways in which civil wars end. Right now I don't see one side beating the other side, because we really do have a military stalemate, and at the moment I don't see the parties being sufficiently exhausted to sue for peace. So as a result, I think the future looks like more fighting, more conflict and more atrocities of the kind that we have been witnessing for the past 3 years.

Werman: What about dealing with war crimes though? Bashar al-Assad is not officially declared a war criminal but the evidence strongly suggests he is.

Daalder: It's a very hard question that I think we always confront, which is on the one hand, can you possibly deal with someone who has been responsible for the kinds of atrocities that have taken place and on the other side, unless you were able to defeat him militarily, you're only going to be able to get to a final solution, an end to this conflict, by having a political deal. You do the political deals with the people who are in power.

Werman: Now, Ivo Daalder, you were in the White House when Bosnia was going on in the '90's. Bosnia and the Balkans had the international community dealing with Slobodan Milosevic. Now we're dealing with Assad. What are the differences and parallels between the Balkans and Syria?

Daalder: Well in the Balkans, much of the debate was about whether or not we should intervene and if so, whether that intervention should favor one side over the other. We really never got to a conclusion on that. It was only after the balance of power was changed through Croatian military intervention in 1995 and it was clear that the Croatians and the Serbs were at least willing to settle for a deal, that a deal became possible. That deal had to involve negotiations with people like Milosevic. They have to be able to be brought into the game in order to settle the conflict and at least to end the war. We wouldn't have been able to do that without Milosevic.

The same is true a few years later when we had the war in Kosovo. We were also willing to directly deal with an indicted war criminal, which was Milosevic, in order to end that conflict. In the end, unless you can defeat them, you will have to figure out a way to deal with them in order to end the killing.

Werman: You sound like you've been wrestling with this dilemma from Bosnia to the present time. What's been your own learning curve when it comes to how to end these civil wars?

Daalder: The biggest learning curve is that I think our ability from the outside to influence these conflicts through military intervention is much more limited than our military power would suggest. It is because we are ultimately not willing to provide the military means necessary to bring conflicts to an end because the interests aren't sufficient and that therefore we have to be realistic about what is possible in situations like this.

Moral purity, which is something that I think all of us think is very important, may stand in the way of a deal. It is very likely that if we're going to solve this conflict politically that someone will have to deal with Assad directly.

Werman: Ivo Daalder, former Ambassador to NATO and now President at the Chicago council on global affairs. Thanks very much.

Daalder: Great to be there.