A brutal, internecine war drags on, pitting a determined dictator against an outgunned opposition. Hundreds of thousands are displaced, flooding into neighboring states. U.N. mediation falters as allies are divided among themselves and with Russia. A U.S. administration, wary of deeper involvement, struggles to formulate policy. And, in the midst of this confusion, a new secretary of state flies off to confer with allies to see what can be done.
Is this John Kerry, now traveling in Europe and soon the Middle East for consultations about Syria, or is it Warren Christopher, who embarked on a similar mission 20 years ago to bring the bloodshed in Bosnia-Herzegovina to an end? The parallels between the two missions are striking -- and we should hope that Kerry has learned the lessons from Christopher's tragically failed bid.
In May 1993, Christopher tried to sell America's European allies on "lift and strike" -- a plan to end the crisis in Bosnia by lifting the arms embargo on the outgunned Bosnian Muslims while launching airstrikes on Bosnian Serb artillery positions. The plan represented a measured response, but the allies doubted the administration's commitment to its own plan and declined to back it. In the end, the Europeans were right: Washington was still reluctant to risk a messy intervention in Bosnia, dooming Christopher's mission before he took off. When he returned to Washington, "lift and strike" was abandoned in favor of a containment strategy for the Bosnia conflict. It would be two more years and tens of thousands more casualties before the United States finally intervened -- but it eventually did.
Kerry faces a similar dilemma on his inaugural trip as secretary of state. Unless he can convince allies like Turkey as well as skeptics like Russia that the United States is serious about altering the trajectory of the conflict, Kerry might as well skip the Syria talking points and focus on other issues. As it is, Kerry is struggling to get key members of the opposition to meet him in Rome on Thursday. After two years of war -- the same point at which Christopher failed -- America's allies need to know what the Obama administration, now in its second term, is really prepared to do about Syria. Otherwise, the conflict will likely drag on indefinitely. Indeed, in an echo of the war in Bosnia, European foreign ministers last week refused to lift the arms embargo that might have aided the rebel Free Syrian Army. This only freezes into place the Assad regime's substantial military advantage.
Current trends in Syria suggest that Washington will be forced into some kind of action eventually. Every day the Assad regime manages to hang on, however crippled, the risk that it will use chemical weapons out of desperation mounts. Likewise, if the regime falls to radical Sunni Islamists, its chemical arsenal may well end up in radical hands. In either case, the damage to U.S. security and regional influence will be substantial.
The best way out of this quandary is to train and equip opposition fighters -- the approach that the outgoing secretaries of state and defense, as well as the former CIA director reportedly backed. Providing weapons -- most critically, man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) that can neutralize the regime's overwhelming air advantage -- to rebel groups on a selective basis would avoid the problem of aiding all groups indiscriminately, as would be the case with a no-fly zone, for example.