Could Syria Take A Lesson From Bosnia?

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

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: The complicated conflict in Syria has so far defied diplomatic efforts to diffuse the crisis. Ambassador Christopher Hill was part of the team that negotiated the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement for Bosnia. He later served as a special envoy is Kosovo and as ambassador of Iraq from 2009 to 2010. He sees few options for a negotiated solution in Syria.

Christopher Hill: There are various, sort of, half-options like creating safe-havens, those kinds of things were done in Bosnia, but they frankly didn't work in Bosnia and they won't work here. So, I think, probably what needs to be done is some sort of political solution that everyone can get behind, and that is proving elusive because, frankly speaking, the sides are deeply divided and getting more so by the day.

Schachter: During the conflict in Bosnia, the American administration said something to the effect of, "Never again." And yet, years on, it is happening again. An administration is killing its own people or people,at least that it is supposed to protect. What did we learn from that situation?

Hill: One of the problems with expressions like, "Never again" is that different parts of the world present very different circumstances. And, it's not to say that Bashar Assad doesn't rank up there with some of the truly miserable dictators in the world, but it does speak to the complexity of how these battle lines are being drawn. After all you have a Druze element there that tends to support Assad. You have a Christian element that tends to support him. You have Kurds that are tending to support him. A raid against some Sunnis, especially more sectarian…

Schachter: A lot of Sunnis, that's the problem.

Hill: A lot of Sunnis who tend to be more on the sectarian camp, who oppose him. The secular Sunnis who kind of support him, the Christians, the Druze, the Kurds don't want to see Syria run by sectarian or run by Muslim brotherhoods, so unfortunately the divisions here is more than just this miserable dictator trying to hold on against his people. It's really the kind of incubator for a civil war, as a number of people have pointed out.

Schachter: You said the concern is doing half measures, yet at the same time, doing nothing, or military invasion won't work either, so where does that leave us?

Hill: Well, I think, first of all, if there were a good option, it would have been already pursued. So, the fact that we are already one year into this crisis with no end in sight suggests that I don't have the answer and I don't think too many other people do. My sense would be, however, to try to get behind what Kofi Annan is trying to do, to try to get behind some kind of political solution. Now, when you do that, what you try to do is lower the temperature and not make attacks against, in this case, Bashar Assad. But, the problem is, his forces, or forces, if not under his command, but certainly inspired by his leadership, went off and murdered some hundred people including fifty children. So, you can't stay silent about that. It does present some real difficulties, but I think overall, we need to get some notion of what's on the end of the road. What kind of coalition could be put together? How the Alawites, who Assad is from, how they could be represented without, perhaps, the personage of Mister Assad. This is a tough issue, but I think, probably, Kofi Annan is the right person to rally around.

Schachter: Now obviously the situation is different between Syria and Bosnia. But, politically speaking is this Obama's Bosnia moment?

Hill: Well, in the sense that it presents a very tough issue, an issue, you recall, Secretary Warren Christopher's comment about Bosnia, "The problem from Hell." I would agree the Syria is the problem of Hell. Libya was, kind of, a problem from Purgatory. But, I think Syria is a much deeper, more nettlesome issue. And, it is not at all clear that the President can manage this thing in a way that will make him look good as we go forward in our sort of campaign mode, which our country is in today.

Schachter: Christopher Hill, many thanks for your time.

Hill: A pleasure.

Schachter: Christopher Hill served recently as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He is now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.