Western powers have reportedly told Syrian opposition forces to expect an international strike against Bashar al-Assad’s forces within days. According to some reports, “three days” of limited strikes aimed at deterring further chemical weapons use could begin as early as Thursday, though some question whether military action would begin while U.N. weapons inspectors were still on the ground. The British Parliament is due to vote on a proposal for military action on Thursday.
With foreign intervention in Syria finally seeming imminent two years into the conflict, interest in the 1999 NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo has been renewed, as lawmakers look for a precedent for such a strike. “Kosovo, of course, is a precedent of something that is perhaps similar,” one official told the New York Times last Friday.
As I see it, there are really three aspects to the “Kosovo precedent,” each with its own benefits and drawbacks.
According to CBS News, President Obama has “ordered up legal justifications for a military strike, should he order one, outside of the United Nations Security Council.” As David Bosco points out, the president didn’t exactly do himself any favors on this front last week in an interview with CNN by questioning “whether international law supports” an attack launched “without a U.N. mandate.”
With Russia and China vehemently opposed to intervention, a U.N. mandate is out of the question, which makes the intervention in Kosovo—authorized under the auspices of NATO without U.N. Security Council backing—seem like an attractive example for the White House to point to.
But as Jack Goldsmith writes on the Lawfare blog, the Kosovo operation was unpopular even with supporters of humanitarian intervention at the time and is often viewed today as “illegal, yet legitimate,” as the Independent International Commission on Kosovo delicately put it. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated at the time that Kosovo was a “unique situation sui generis in the region of the Balkans,” and State Department legal adviser Mike Matheson insisted that the United States “had not accepted the doctrine of humanitarian intervention as an independent legal basis for military action that was not justified by self-defense or the authorization of the Security Council.”*
Romesh Ratnesar notes at Bloomberg Businessweek that situational parallels on the ground also make Kosovo an attractive precedent. In Kosovo, too, there was compelling evidence of human rights abuses and violations of international law, a growing refugee crisis, and potential risks for neighboring countries. The operation was ultimately a success, and at less than $5 billion and no U.S. casualties, a relatively cheap one, but Ratnesar argues that it was a much messier one than proponents like to remember:
Some 500 civilians were killed by NATO strikes, including three Chinese journalists who died when U.S. warplanes mistakenly hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The end of hostilities signaled the start of an open-ended NATO peacekeeping mission that continues to this day, and even the presence of tens of thousands of allied troops wasn’t enough to prevent former officers in the Kosovo Liberation Army from engaging in horrific acts of criminality. Nor did the West’s intervention force Milosevic from power: He held on for a further year and a half and was ousted only after he tried to steal an election.
Of course, the administration will insist that its goal is punitive action aimed at deterring Assad’s chemical weapons use rather than any attempt to tip the balance in the conflict, but given the vastly worse scale of brutality in this conflict, it’s probably safe to expect violence far worse than anything seen in the Balkans following an international strike.
Here’s where the Kosovo precedent is perhaps most compelling. The administration will be undertaking this operation with historically low levels of public support. That’s probably not because Americans are heartless or blasé about the dangers of chemical weapons, they’re just understandably wary after more than a decade of costly, seemingly unwinnable conflicts in the Middle East.
As Faisal Al Yafai writes, “Humanitarian intervention, like all politics, does not occur in a vacuum.” The U.S. government and public were overconfident before Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s certainly not the problem today. With the example of Kosovo, U.S. leaders can invoke the period before the Bush administration’s wars and Benghazi when the combination of high-minded ideals and overwhelming firepower seemed capable of, if not putting an end to human rights abuses, at least deterring the most egregious ones.
It looks like we’ll soon see if it can still work.
*Correction, Aug. 27, 2013: This post originally misspelled Madeleine Albright's first name.
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