The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Western military intervention saved lives in Bosnia. It can work in Syria, too.

A NATO rescue helicopter flies over the mountain Vranica, some 50 kilometers northwest from Sarajevo, where a U.N. helicopter with 16 people on board crashed in 1997. (Damir Sagolj/REUTERS)

Muhamed Sacirbey was the first ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Nations and is a former Bosnian foreign minister. In 1995, he accompanied the Bosnian delegation to the Balkan peace negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, which brought a political settlement to the conflict in Bosnia.

Syria’s largest city is on the brink of starvation. Bombed from the skies and besieged on the ground, Aleppo’s 2 million residents may soon be exterminated. A little more than two decades ago, my country’s capital confronted a similar catastrophe. In the spring of 1992, regular and paramilitary units, snipers, artillery and tanks surrounded Sarajevo, Bosnia, inflicting what would become the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

Like in Aleppo, the situation inside Sarajevo was dire. Extremists (ostensibly seeking to deliver a “Greater Serbia”) sought to pummel, choke and starve a cosmopolitan city with a long tradition of diversity. Major access roads were cut. Utilities including water, electricity and heat were shut off. Snipers made daily life a living hell. But Sarajevo’s 400,000 residents escaped many of the horrors now awaiting Aleppo’s residents. They survived, not because then-President Slobodan Milosevic’s forces were any more humane than Bashar al-Assad’s or because Yugoslav air forces were any less capable, but because NATO opted (albeit belatedly and, too often, inadequately) to uphold its responsibility to protect Bosnian civilians.

Calls for military intervention — even for the most noble of reasons — have developed a bad reputation in the decades since NATO’s intervention in Bosnia. The catastrophe of Iraq and the disastrous post-intervention rebuilding of Libya have caused many to doubt whether military intervention could ever work. While the West’s military intervention in Bosnia didn’t solve all our problems, it was decisive in moving Bosnia and the region from war to peace — a process that still continues, albeit highly imperfectly. There is every reason to believe that similar action and determination, centered on stopping aerial bombardment of civilians, would provide similar benefits to Syria and the world.

Bosnia’s military intervention initially came in the form of a no-fly zone, in theory committed to in August 1992 but enforced only in the late spring of 1993, after a deal was reached between U.N. Security Council members, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright and myself — in my capacity as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ambassador to the United Nations. Almost immediately, Bosnia’s no-fly zone saved lives. It grounded Milosevic’s air forces, which threatened to wreak havoc on Bosnia’s capital, and allowed urgently needed humanitarian aid to flow into besieged Sarajevo. Thanks to the no-fly zone, a long lifeline from the Adriatic to Sarajevo and other Bosnian towns remained open. Had Serbian air forces been allowed to bomb with impunity — as Syrian air forces are now doing across Syria — Milosevic would have succeeded in choking off Sarajevo and denying all access to aid — costing countless innocent lives, and undoubtedly playing into the hands of extremists.

Bosnia’s no-fly zone also left the door open for substantive peace negotiations. Two years after the no-fly zone went into effect, NATO decided to employ limited military strikes on Yugoslav national army assets, which effectively ended the siege of Sarajevo employed by the ultra-nationalists under the leadership of Ratko Mladić, Radovan Karadžić and Milosevic. These limited strikes ultimately increased the pressure needed to stop the onslaught for further military gains and it created the conditions needed for the “Contact Group” to lead negotiations to conclude the Dayton Accords.

Like in Bosnia, limited military intervention in Syria would save civilian lives, perhaps as many as 200 a week. It would stop the largest killer in Syria: indiscriminate airstrikes. Since 2015, airstrikes have caused more than half of all of civilian deaths in Syria. They have targeted hospitals and schools and they have made humanitarian aid delivery all but impossible.

The United States, leading a coalition of allies, could stop indiscriminate airstrikes by establishing what experts are calling a “no-bombing zone” across Syria. Unlike Bosnia’s no-fly zone, Syria’s no-bombing zone wouldn’t necessitate putting aircraft over Syrian skies and boots on the ground. Instead, it would rely on cruise missiles to retaliate against Syrian military assets if and when the Syrian government attacked innocent civilians. A limited intervention of this kind would dramatically lower the death toll and it would propel the Syrian regime to the negotiating table. It would make clear that there was no credible alternative to peace talks and that a military solution would not work. This, in turn, would lay the foundations for the political solution that Syrians desperately need.

Bosnians were fortunate that so many Holocaust survivors and those within the Jewish community made “never again” an affirmative commitment. Bosnians now have a similar responsibility. Thanks to the efforts of brave media, courageous humanitarian workers and ceaseless diplomacy, particularly at the U.N., that sought to lift the veneer of indifference, millions around the world knew about the plight of Sarajevo. Certainly, no American presidential candidate could be ignorant of or be comfortably numb to the carnage in Sarajevo, unlike Aleppo today.

Having lived through the “problem from hell” in Bosnia, I know the world can stop the bloodshed in Syria. Stopping the killing in Syria is not a question of feasibility; it’s a question of political will. After more than 470,000 deaths, a global refugee crisis and a global terrorist threat, it’s time world leaders found the courage to uphold their responsibility to protect Syrian civilians and ended this crisis once and for all.

We can help Syrians end this nightmare — we just have to want to.