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Houla massacre evokes memories of Srebrenica

By Michael Dobbs,

 SREBRENICA, BOSNIA — When Emir Suljagic saw the television footage last week of grieving families and burned-out houses in the Syrian town of Houla, he felt a sickening sense of deja vu. 

“It’s bizarre how ‘never again’ has come to mean ‘again and again,’ ” said the Srebrenica survivor, 37, who blames the United States and other Western governments for failing to take timely action to prevent Europe’s worst massacre since World War II. “It’s obvious that we live in a world where Srebrenicas are still possible. What’s happening in Syria today is almost identical to what happened in Bosnia two decades ago.”

Bosnian journalist Srecko Latal agreed that there were points of similarity between Syria and Bosnia but was also struck by the differences.  He is wary about talk of a “Srebrenica moment” in U.S. policy toward Syria, in the sense of a humanitarian crisis large and embarrassing enough to force a decisive U.S. response, as happened in Bosnia in summer 1995 after the massacres of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces.

“There are no simple answers,” said Latal, who lived through the 31 / 2-year siege of Sarajevo.  “You can’t copy a solution that was applied to Bosnia and paste it someplace else.”

The contrasting points of views from two survivors of the first great conflict of the post-Cold War era outline the contours of the foreign policy debate triggered by the mounting violence in Syria.  The gruesome television images, culminating in the pictures of coffins of dozens of young children in Houla, have stirred plenty of moral outrage but failed to generate any clear consensus on what should be done to punish and deter the perpetrators.

Only weeks after announcing a government-wide“genocide prevention” initiative, President Obama finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being compared unfavorably to his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who was widely criticized for his tardy response in Bosnia.  

Clinton sought to keep the United States out of the Bosnian imbroglio — until he was shamed into action by the killings of Muslim prisoners in Srebrenica and the continued shelling of Sarajevo.

Combined with a ground offensive by Croat and Muslim forces, a U.S.-led bombing campaign succeeded in breaking the back of the Bosnian Serb army in September 1995, paving the way for the Dayton peace pact two months later.  The settlement confirmed the division of Bosnia into rival Serbian and Muslim-Croat statelets but put an end to a war that claimed 100,000 lives and drove more than a million people from their homes.

“Say what you will about Clinton, but he eventually sent Tomahawks and cruise missiles,” Suljagic said.  “The present crowd is drafting memos.”

‘Awareness without action’

The contrast between the two Democratic presidents is made more stark by the fact that the Obama genocide prevention initiative is being shaped by staffers who were profoundly affected by the spectacle of Western inaction in Bosnia and Rwanda.  The key figure here is Obama adviser Samantha Power, who worked in Bosnia as a journalist in 1995 at the time of the Srebrenica massacre and wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem from Hell,” now regarded as a seminal work in the rapidly expanding field of mass atrocity studies.

Obama outlined his new strategy and the appointment of a government-wide Atrocities Prevention Board in a speech last month at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that included the line, “awareness without action changes nothing.”  He was gently taken to task by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who wondered pointedly whether world leaders had learned anything from the Holocaust when men such as Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were still in power in Syria and Iran.

Wiesel’s presence endowed the occasion with a certain historic symmetry, as he had delivered a very similar public rebuff to Clinton at the height of the Bosnia war.  Speaking at the dedication of the Holocaust museum in 1993, the Auschwitz survivor said he was “unable to sleep” after a visit to the former Yugoslavia. “People fight each other and children die,” he told Clinton. “Something, anything, must be done.”

But other commentators note that the level of violence in Syria has yet to reach the proportions of Bosnia, much less Rwanda, where about 500,000 Tutsis were killed in just 100 days in 1994 in an orgy of state-sponsored killings.  By independent estimates, about 10,000 Syrians have been killed by government security forces over the past year.

“There are big differences between Bosnia and Syria,” said Mort Abramowitz, a retired U.S. diplomat who led a public campaign for American intervention in the Balkans.  “In Bosnia, you had three years of war, massive ethnic cleansing, 100,000 casualties, a conflict that involved Europeans, not Arabs.  The administration is embarrassed by the deaths of the hundred or so kids, but they are not going to do anything unless there is a lot more violence.”

While the scale of the violence is different, there are sufficient similarities between the methods used by Assad and his Serbian counterparts, Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karad­zic, to be deeply disturbing to many people who experienced the Bosnia war.

“Take a look at what the Syrian government forces are doing and what happened in Bosnia in 1992,” said Suljagic, who worked with the United Nations during the war as a translator.  “Surrounding villages with the army, shelling civilian homes, separating the men from the women, raping the women, killing the men. It is straight out of the Karadzic-Milosevic playbook.”

Suljagic said he shared his concerns about Syria with an American diplomat in Sarajevo only to be told that the United States “did not have a dog in that fight,” a remark that echoed a now-celebrated comment by Secretary of State James Baker in 1991, before the breakup of Yugoslavia.   

Mixed success

One big difference between Syria and Bosnia is the impact of the Internet and social media, which have resulted in the almost immediate distribution of shocking images from obscure villages such as Houla. In July 1995, by contrast, it took weeks to build up a complete picture of the atrocities in Srebrenica, despite the presence of a large international press corps in Sarajevo that included Power.   

The Obama administration has contributed to the dissemination of information about the Syrian atrocities by releasing satellite imagery of Syrian army units moving against towns and villages controlled by the Free Syrian Army, a loosely knit coalition of anti-Assad forces.  The Clinton administration eventually released similar imagery of the Srebrenica crimes, but only after an anguished internal debate. 

The U.S.-led military intervention in Bosnia has been a mixed success. On the one hand, it belatedly ended a brutal 31 / 2-year war. On the other, few of Bosnia’s underlying problems have been resolved and the country is now more deeply divided than ever, ethnically, religiously and politically. 

“One lesson I draw from the Bosnian experience is that the international community should not try to create countries or democratic systems because that does not work,” said Latal, the former Bosnian journalist who is now an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based think tank.  “It did not work in Bosnia, and it did not work in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Latal fears that Western governments, and particularly the U.S. government, have become “victims of a 24/7 news cycle” in which they are forced to respond to television and YouTube images rather develop a coherent long-term strategy.

“Jumping from one intervention to another without a clear idea of where you are going can create problems down the road,” said Latal, pointing to the upsurge in ethnic bloodletting after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  “If you don’t have a very clear idea of who is doing what to whom, or what is likely to happen afterwards, then you shouldn’t intervene.”

Dobbs, a former Washington Post reporter, has been researching the Srebrenica case as a fellow for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. For more of his work, go to online.ushmm.org/blogs/mladic-trial.

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