This month marks the 20-year anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War. As regime forces pound the city of Homs with artillery shells in advance of a UN observers team visit, I couldn’t escape an eerie feeling of history repeating itself. In the Bosnian War there were more than 100,000 deaths (200,000 some estimates say), mostly civilian, before NATO forces were able to bring it to an end. In Syria, the “modest” toll is “only” 11,000, but as we’ve learned from Bosnia, there is still time left for more.
Lessons learned from Bosnia are sadly relevant and ominous.
Lesson one: Russia. Most of the weapons in the Bosnian War were, not surprisingly, Russian. Russian volunteer forces also actively assisted the Serbs. While Russia was officially co-operating with the allies, the commander of the Russian contingent to the UN force, Major General Aleksandr Perelyakin, was actually helping to smuggle weapons to the Serbs. Perelyakin, who was eventually dismissed by the UN, became an adviser to the commander of a Serb division in the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska Krajina in Croatia. After the war, Russia gave refuge to several Bosnian Serbs wanted for war crimes and atrocities, including the massacre at Srebrenica.
Lesson two: the UN. In July of 1995, about 8000 Bosnian men and boys were murdered in a UN safe zone in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. The UN hesitated to respond as events unfolded, even while its own Srebrenica headquarters were bombarded. In one bizarre episode, Colonel Thom Karremans, the Dutch commander of the UN force, asked for urgent air support and was told his request could not be granted because it had been submitted on the wrong form. It took another day to find the correct form before Colonel Karremans could secure the withdrawal of his troops, leaving General Ratko Mladic alone with Bosnians he began to round up for killing under the watchful eye of the UN peacekeeping force.
By the way, Kofi Annan, then under-secretary-general of the UN, was there at the time, negotiating another ceasefire.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who happened to be visiting Russia last week, took advantage of his visit to argue that Damascus had begun implementing a UN-mitigated peace plan. The six-point plan, negotiated by the UN Arab League envoy of Annan gave Syria 10 days to withdraw from urban areas and cease all violence. Since Syria’s implementation of the “ceasefire withdrawal”, 1200 Syrians have joined the death toll. Russia was quick to praise the achievement
Taftanaz, a small town of 15,000 in northern Syria, is one of many sites where opposition was growing strong. The Syrian Army stepped in last Tuesday to bring that to an end. Eye witnesses tell of captives being summarily executed and burnt young bodies on the streets. “In my entire neighborhood, only one house is still intact,” said, Razzan, a survivor, “there is no more Taftanaz.”
Other survivors reported that soldiers burst into the home of Mahmoud Gazal, a suspected rebel, and using knives, killed Gazal, his wife and their four children aged two, five, six, and eight. One photo from the city shows graffiti, apparently left by the army that says “Assad or the country burns.” It is signed by “The Assad Death Brigade 76” – a sad reminder of what might happen to those who dare challenge the man in charge. Not yet Srebrenica…but getting close.
During the Bosnian war, Kofi Annan, then Under-Secretary-General of the UN, was appointed Special Representative to the former Yugoslavia, tasked with bringing peace to the war stricken region. He failed in that mission, yet he was promoted to general secretary of the UN as a testament to his achievements.
Maybe two decades later he at least knows what forms need to be filled in order to get the international community moving. To succeed, Annan, who is travelling to Iran again this week, will need to negotiate more than just another broken cease fire. He will need to stand firm to make sure that message of Brigade 76 can no longer be sprayed. Otherwise, the current trajectory might bring the body count to the level of Bosnia before someone else will take the lead.
Nir Boms is the co-founder of CyberDissidents.org