SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — "Safe havens" for civilians in Syria? Think twice, Bosnians would warn.
With the U.N. unable to agree how to protect civilians against Bashar Assad's forces, Western officials are discussing creation of safe corridors to deliver aid to Syrians trapped by the crackdown.
Similar measures failed badly during the war in Bosnia two decades ago that killed over 100,000 people and left millions homeless. The lesson of Bosnia is that without all sides honoring the agreement — and without a robust military response in case they don't — such measures may have little effect and could actually prolong the misery.
EDITORS NOTE — Aida Cerkez reported from the 'safe haven' of Sarajevo throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
In 1993, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that declared six cities in Bosnia as "safe havens" for civilians and deployed military observers to monitor the situation.
The U.N. protected zones in places like the capital of Sarajevo or the eastern enclave of Srebrenica in effect became prisons, subject to relentless shelling by Bosnian Serb forces that often denied they were responsible. The U.N. never managed to get enough aid through the corridors and smugglers made fortunes.
The U.N. found their troops often under attack. But the mandate on striking back was limited and unclear. The Security Council responded with several futile resolutions "strongly condemning" the attacks and urging safe passage for aid convoys.
The U.N. was operating under a peacekeeping mandate that allowed international forces to defend themselves but not to initiate action. It's precisely that type of operation that is currently being aired for Syria, although no draft has been submitted to the Security Council.
Without the mandate, the numbers or the will to engage with Serb forces, the U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia found themselves powerless to prevent bloodshed — and were in fact exposed to the possibility of being taken hostage and used as human shields.
Faced with hostile fire, Western peacekeepers more often preferred to retreat rather than fight back. Essentially, the effectiveness of the safe havens boiled down to the restraint of the warring parties that had agreed to them.
The Serbs exploited that weakness at will — overrunning safe zones as U.N. troops stood idly by.
A road linking the Sarajevo airport to the city was officially under U.N. protection and off limits to Sarajevo residents, but the Serbs kept a checkpoint and controlled the traffic throughout the 1992-95 war.
Eventually, the road became so dangerous that foreign journalists and aid workers dubbed it the "Road to Hell" and the main street in Sarajevo "Sniper Ally."
Those safe havens actually lengthened the 1992-95 war.
Instead of stopping the bloodshed, they simply reduced it to a politically acceptable level. It enabled both the attackers and the resistance to continue fighting.
Without a quick political settlement, neither side could achieve victory and both staved off decisive defeat. It was not until Serb forces overran Srebrenica in July 1995 that the West could no longer sit and watch and deployed troops to stop the carnage.
The enclave fell after senior U.N. commanders rejected a request by a few hundred Dutch peacekeepers deployed in Srebrenica for air strikes and its Muslim Bosnian residents swarmed a U.N. military base, still believing the Dutch would protect them.
But outnumbered and outgunned, the U.N. peacekeepers allowed the Serbs to separate women and children from men and execute some 8,000 males in what later became known as the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.
Hans Blom, who oversaw a Dutch government-commisioned investigation into the Srebrenica massacre, said he is "very pessimistic" about what the international community can do in Syria. He voiced skepticism over the U.N.'s concept of "safe zones" or "safe areas," calling it a very vague notion and difficult to enforce.
"My insight of the Srebrenica case is that international institutions are inclined to do the wrong thing at the wrong moment," said Blom, who headed the Netherlands Institute of War Documentation at the time it prepared its authoritative Srebrenica report.
Another major problem remains in Syria. The "safe havens" would require an outside force to ensure security for aid convoys that would transport the stockpiles of medical and humanitarian supplies that Washington says are being prepared at Syria's borders.
Any international mission would need the approval of Russia and China, which hold veto power on the Security Council — and both countries are adamantly against such intervention unless Syria agrees.
The top U.S. commander in the Middle East recently said the advanced air defense weapons Russia has provided to Syria would make it difficult to establish a no-fly zone there as part of an effort to protect the civilians.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee it would take a significant military commitment to create safe havens in Syria where aid could be delivered, as U.S. Republican Sen. John McCain has suggested.
Another lesson from the Balkans: Nothing worked until the United States stepped in with its military power.
A 60,000-strong American-led NATO ground force was sent to Bosnia in 1995 to enforce a U.S.-brokered peace agreement. Faced with Western determination to use force, the warring factions never tried to confront them.
U.S. and British officers simply drove to Serb checkpoints surrounding Sarajevo, stepped out of their vehicles and informed the gunmen they have 30 seconds to leave. The dreaded Serb checkpoint on the Road to Hell disappeared without a bullet being fired.
Blom said that for now he doesn't see a role for international peacekeepers in Syria because there is no peace to keep and any humanitarian workers who were to enter the country would face massive violence. Only a massive military intervention could stop the violence, he argued.
"Only if there is a very determined outside force willing to use military means, it's maybe possible," he said. "Interventions are a very complicated thing. And the terrible thing, of course, is that doing nothing is as bad."
Dusan Stojanovic from Belgrade, Serbia, and Vanessa Gera from Warsaw, Poland, contributed reporting.