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Syrian Conflict A Haunting Reminder Of Bosnia


Turkish President Abdullah Gul says his country will take necessary action against Syria, after Syrian air defense forces shot down a Turkish military plane yesterday. President Gul also says the Turkish plane may have unintentionally violated Syrian airspace. The incident could have escalated an already-tense crisis, but both Turkey and Syria so far have downplayed the incident, and they are cooperating on trying to rescue the pilots.

It is the latest development in the 15-month uprising in Syria that's proving to be one of the deadliest conflicts in the Arab Spring. More than 10,000 people may have been killed so far, and the international community has been unable to stem the violence. The crisis in Syria is drawing comparisons to the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: There are plenty of differences between the conflict in Bosnia two decades ago, and the one now in Syria. But James Dobbins, director of the Rand International Security and Defense Policy Center, says what's happening in Syria is increasingly reminiscent of the early days of the Bosnia war.

JAMES DOBBINS: It didn't begin as an ethnically based conflict, but it's turning into one. It is one in which Russia and China are resisting stronger international efforts; that's similar. It's one in which the United States is hanging back, and looking to others to take the lead in any sort of a real intervention.

NORTHAM: And, Dobbins says, Syria is trending toward a civil war, much the same as Bosnia did.

DOBBINS: The intensity of the divisions in the country, the external environment in which sides are providing arms to both of the contending parties - all of that suggests that the situation's going to continue to deteriorate. And I think it could easily reach the levels of violence we saw in Bosnia.

NORTHAM: More than 100,000 people were killed in the war in Bosnia, almost 10 times the number in Syria - so far. Daniel Serwer, with Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says there's certainly a difference in scale. But he says in both cases, diplomacy, and threats by the international community, had little initial impact on the violence.

DANIEL SERWER: I think what you've got is a situation which atrocities are being committed. And the international community, while it clearly has a consensus against these atrocities, does not have a clear and compelling consensus to intervene, to prevent them.

NORTHAM: Serwer says it took more than three years to develop the consensus to intervene in Bosnia. He says there was a cumulative effect where news, day after day, of atrocities and executions increased moral outrage. But one event may have been the catalyst for change.


NORTHAM: In July 1995, Bosnian-Serb forces massacred more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys. It was the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War. Morton Abramowitz, a former diplomat now with the Century Foundation, says shortly after, the U.S. and NATO unleashed a bombing campaign to rout the Bosnian Serb army.

MORTON ABRAMOWITZ: Srebrenica was a very decisive point. After three years of watching this, after considerable dismay in the United States, Srebrenica served to galvanize.

NORTHAM: There have been reports of at least four massacres in Syria, but on a much smaller scale. The worst was in the region of Houla, where more than 100 people - mostly women and children - were killed. Serwer says that massacres and other atrocities in Syria may spark disgust. But he says so far, there is little public support for intervention.

SERWER: I haven't seen that kind of revulsion developing in the United States. Americans are not very focused on Syria, and I think they're acutely aware of the risks - and costs - of getting involved in another Middle Eastern war.

NORTHAM: As the international community waits, the killings in Syria add up, much as they did in Bosnia. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.