Dayton’s Lessons for Syria


Twenty years ago, the Dayton peace agreement ended a brutal ethnic war in Bosnia. The agreement, negotiated by U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, was formally signed in Paris in December 1995. Between 1992 and 1995, the Bosnian War killed at least 100,000 people, most of them civilians. By the summer of 1995, America’s lack of leadership in the face of Bosnia’s festering humanitarian crisis had become a serious political liability for President Bill Clinton. But the peace agreement reached at Dayton was widely recognized as a success and silenced most critics of Clinton’s foreign policy. As President Barack Obama faces increasing criticism over his lack of decisive action on Syria, the way in which Clinton managed to resolve a seemingly intractable sectarian conflict trough pragmatic statecraft may hold important lessons.

Washington’s liberal interventionists

From the spring of 1993 onward, several of President Clinton’s chief foreign policy aides, including National Security Adviser Tony Lake and Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came to interpret the Bosnian War as a straightforward tale of victimhood vs. aggression: They viewed the Bosnian Muslims as hapless victims and the Bosnian Serbs as bloodthirsty aggressors. The reality on the ground was more complex, with atrocities committed by all sides; indeed, the Bosnian Muslims engaged in reckless behavior of their own, repeatedly launching offensive operations against a stronger Serb opponent, with the goal of engineering a Western military intervention on their behalf.

As early as April 1993, Albright and her fellow liberal interventionists advocated a coercive U.S. military intervention in support of the Bosnian Muslims. As I discuss in a recently published book that draws on interviews with top-level officials and declassified documents, these liberal interventionists argued that the United States should use military force, unilaterally if needed, to “intimidate the Bosnian Serb militia and their patrons in Belgrade,” reverse Bosnian Serb territorial gains, and stop the genocidal killing.

Pragmatic realists at the Pentagon

Civilian and uniformed leaders at the Pentagon, meanwhile, were skeptical of humanitarian intervention in Bosnia. They warned that coercive U.S. military action, especially in the absence of broad international backing, would most likely result in a costly and protracted commitment to stabilize the country. Hence, they advocated instead a de facto ethnic partition of Bosnia along the existing lines of confrontation — to be buttressed by pragmatic accommodations with the chief warlords from the region.

For over two years, the liberal interventionists’ principled insistence that the United States should “resist evil” head-on and refuse to ratify the results of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, combined with President Clinton’s desire to limit American liability, resulted in a confused and ineffective U.S. policy toward the Balkans. It was not until after the massacre of over 7,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in July 1995 that Clinton finally decided to put America’s full weight behind a renewed diplomatic effort to end the Bosnian War.

The Dayton agreement reached later that year quietly incorporated many elements of the Pentagon’s preferred pragmatic realist approach. Although the agreement preserved Bosnia as a unitary state, it also granted wide-ranging self-government rights to each of Bosnia’s main ethnic communities (Muslims, Croats, and Serbs). Furthermore, the Dayton agreement’s signatories included three notorious warlords accused of complicity in war crimes: Presidents Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia (who represented the country’s Muslim community), Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia/Yugoslavia.

Arguably, it was this pragmatic accommodation with suspected war criminals, combined with Bosnia’s de facto internal partition, that made Dayton possible and ultimately made the agreement stick — much more than the limited, “pinprick” air strikes launched by the United States and its allies in the aftermath of Srebrenica. According to a declassified CIA report, NATO’s much-touted September 1995 air campaign had only “moderate success” in degrading Bosnian Serb military capabilities. The fact that Tudjman and Milosevic were induced by the West to cooperate and ended up putting significant pressure on their Bosnian protégés to make concessions in all likelihood had a greater impact.

Lessons for Syria

Regarding the crisis in Syria, some of President Obama’s principal foreign policy advisers have similarly been committed humanitarians. They have consistently argued that the United States should refuse any permanent accommodation with President Bashar al-Assad’s criminal regime and instead ought to work to oust it from power, by military force if necessary. After a chemical weapons attack killed hundreds of people near the Syrian capital of Damascus in 2013, Washington’s chief humanitarian interventionists explicitly compared the crisis in Syria to the Srebrenica massacre and insisted that America’s credibility was once again at stake. Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice advocated a military response to punish the Assad regime for its massive human rights violations and tilt the local balance of power against it.

Top-level U.S. military commanders, meanwhile, warned early on that if the United States set out to punish Assad for his putative war crimes, it “would most likely be drawn into a protracted conflict, and would need to be prepared for the expense.” Particularly under Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon also privately raised questions about the wisdom of calling for Assad’s departure, which resulted in significant frictions between Hagel and his more interventionist colleagues. Just recently, Hagel made public his views that “insisting that Assad must go eventually … puts the United States at risk of confusing its allies and adversaries.”

There can be little doubt that in the long run, most people would be better off if Assad left power and an inclusive, representative, and democratic government emerged in Syria. In the short run, however, regime change in Syria would most likely plunge the country into complete chaos, possibly further empowering the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” and associated militias. Aiming to establish a functioning, transitional government in Syria without genuine backing from Assad’s inner circle also probably amounts to wishful thinking; indeed, there is little reason to believe that the Alawite Shia community, to which Assad belongs, would drop its staunch support for the Syrian president short of a complete battlefield defeat of Syrian government forces.

Stop insisting that Assad must go

Leadership in foreign affairs requires that decision-makers embrace what the social and political theorist Max Weber called an “ethic of responsibility”: They should carefully assess the likely consequences of their statements and actions, with the goal of bringing about the best possible outcome under the circumstances. Weber contrasted this with an “ethic of ultimate ends,” whereby individuals rigidly abide by abstract moral principles without much regard for the consequences. For too long, the United States and its European allies have taken comfort in an ethic of ultimate ends with regard to Syria, insisting that Assad needs to leave as a precondition for serious negotiations on the country’s political future, while being in denial about the costs of a straightforward policy of regime change. As with Bosnia in 1995, the time has come for Western leaders to embrace an ethic of responsibility concerning Syria.

Concretely, this means that the United States and its allies should abandon once and for all their insistence that there is “no place for Bashar al-Assad in any transitional government.” Assad should be allowed to continue to serve in office; but the power of Syria’s presidency could be reduced significantly by transferring most executive authority to a newly created post of prime minister and a power-sharing central executive. In addition, Syria’s principal ethnic and religious communities should be granted wide-ranging self-government rights by means of generous territorial decentralization, along the lines of the Bosnian model. Finally, as was done in Bosnia, the United States and its European allies should lean heavily on reluctant regional partners — including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but also Iran — to accept such a compromise settlement and in turn pressure their Syrian protégés into compliance.

Others have pointed out that the “cantonization” of Bosnia sanctioned at Dayton and the resulting “loose federal or confederal” state structure could be a useful model for Syria. What has not been sufficiently recognized, however, is that Holbrooke succeeded at Dayton because he was willing to strike a deal with putative war criminals. Far from insisting that Tudjman, Izetbegovic, and Milosevic had to be removed from power, he recognized them as legitimate stakeholders. Similarly today, continued insistence that Assad needs to go, or even that there needs to be a firm timeline for his future exit, would be counterproductive. The overwhelming strategic imperatives for Western countries in the present context have to be to crush the “Islamic State” and end the civil war in Syria. Success on these fronts would also dramatically reduce the flow of refugees toward Europe.

Some might worry that such a policy would reward Russia, which has recently been supporting Assad militarily. It might also undermine U.S. credibility, since President Obama publicly declared in 2011 that “Assad must step down.” But it appears that what has rewarded Russia, more than anything, has been the U.S. approach of taking the moral high ground on Syria without facing up to the costs of implementing its preferred policy of regime change. A pragmatic compromise on Syria’s governance along the lines of the Dayton agreement could provide a boost to the current military campaign against the Islamic State. Assuming that such a compromise agreement also paved the way to lasting peace in Syria, today’s concerns among Washington’s hawkish liberal interventionists about U.S. credibility and Russian influence in the region would quickly fade into distant memory.


Stefano Recchia is assistant professor in international relations at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Reassuring the Reluctant Warriors: U.S. Civil-Military Relations and Multilateral Intervention (Cornell University Press, 2015).


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Brian Schlumbohm, U.S. Air Force