It’s difficult to write about a civil war at its start. The accounts are confused and conflicting. The international rhetoric is stretched and obtuse. The claims and counter-claims are the stuff of the playground; the vociferous voices vying for some kind of international validation. Oh, and the UN is once again being hopeless. I might still be the only person who doesn’t understand the joy of the blue hats.
People have made comparisons with the Balkans conflict in the 90s, and the international attempts and non-attempts to stop that conflict in its tracks. There are superficial reasons why such an analysis feels right: the dominance of one side over a clearly identified minority, military actions that continue despite strong international complaint, the UN vacillating and sending dignitaries (more ex-British politicians, a nice symmetry)… but no end to the conflict, and indeed a leader waving and looking on top of his game.
It is quite easy to see why the ghost of the Balkans feels very present.
But Syria isn’t the Balkans.
Geographical positioning: different region, different players. The regional hegemon supports this government, and supplies it with support and materiel. As per my previous thoughts the Chinese and Russian governments are also big players in this part of the region, and a resurgent Russia is more able to play a crucial role now, whereas it was only re-finding its feet after the early 90s hiccups it had faced. The link between the Orthodox churches was important, but not overwhelming, whereas the influence into the Middle East is currently more persuasive. The absence of a European or persuasive American influence in the region (one not based on confrontation) is also telling.
A different era: whilst the Balkans really got humanitarian interventionism into its stride, the situation now is somewhat different. For one, as described in the previous post, the Syrians can fight, whilst the Balkans wars were characterised by very conventional weapons, and airpower was overpowering. We have also simply taken part in too many. Not just the UK, but all of the usual suspects, and our dwindling defence budgets.. and the war weariness. The global policemen require a substantial shot in the arm, or a very different approach.
Situation on the ground: Srebrenica for Homs? No blue hats on the ground this time, but chief blue hats buzzing round. No more effective however, and could the UN have sustained Srebrenica mk2? Still, there appears to have been quite wide spread killing, certainly from the video evidence released, although it is contested and the BBC documentary on the subject this evening suggests that the rebel army are also a little blunt in their measures. It is perhaps in the situation on the ground that we can see the most commonality: the experience of the ordinary citizen, the inability to impact on events decisively. The possible reality that hundreds of innocents have been slaughtered in the face of international opposition.
And when people invoke the Balkans what they’re actually doing is highlighting the powerlessness of the international community. The inability of the international community to provide enough leverage to persuade another state to stop a course of action. The rhetoric of the UN and of those states who purport to be global policemen (and those of the international media) is of course to avoid such horrors, and the gap between capabilities and expectations is acute and awkward.
The echo from the Balkans is only partly about human misery. The real echo is how these circumstances reflect on us and make us feel.