The failure, ahem, suspension this week of United Nations sponsored talks in Geneva aimed at stopping the carnage in Syria was all too predictable. The talks were initially delayed by the inability of Syrian opposition groups to agree on who should get a seat at the table. Then after just five days of negotiations, the negotiators realized what should have been apparent from the start—an end to the Syrian civil war is highly unlikely absent conditions on the battlefield conducive to a negotiated settlement. What are those conditions?
Few civil wars throughout history have been resolved through a settlement imposed by the international community. So it is instructive to look at one war that was brought to an end in such a manner—the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s. In many ways the conflict in Bosnia resembles the Syrian civil war. As in Syria, the slaughter in Bosnia was significant, with nearly a hundred thousand people killed from 1992 to 1995. Waves of refugees fleeing the conflict zone ended up in neighboring countries. Ethno-sectarian hatreds made peace seem unlikely.
The destabilization created by the violence eventually led to international attempts to halt the slaughter. But these efforts went nowhere at first, hampered by the unwillingness of the Bosnian Serbs to come to the peace table because they believed they were winning, and by the reluctance of European states to use force to halt the bloodshed. In July 1995 Bosnian-Serb forces under Ratko Mladić occupied a United Nations’ safe zone in Srebrenica, casting aside a battalion of Dutch peacekeepers who lacked the requisite rules of engagement to protect the population. The resulting massacre of more than eight thousand men and boys showed the fecklessness of UNPROFOR, the UN peacekeeping force that lacked the power and will to make a real difference on the ground. Peace seemed far off.
Events on the battlefield soon changed the political calculation of all sides. In early August, Croat-Bosniak forces launched an offensive that seized the Serb-held area of Krajina. In one stroke the military balance of the conflict changed; the Bosnian Serbs now seemed in jeopardy of losing the war if it continued. NATO then intervened, launching airstrikes that further tilted the military balance of power against them. At this point, with the military situation in the balance, all sides agreed to a cease-fire and peace talks. The resulting Dayton Accords, which led to a negotiated end to the violence and a peace backed up by the intervention of tens of thousands of NATO forces, essentially ended the conflict.
Nearly every one of the conditions that led to the end of the Bosnian civil war is absent in Syria. Backed by Russian and Iranian forces, the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad believes it can win the war by force of arms. The regime has no incentive to negotiate, other than to accept the surrender of the insurgent groups arrayed against it. There is no international force in the wings ready to back the rebels and help them change this fundamental military equation. Until that happens, until military reverses change the political calculus in Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran, the war will grind on, more civilians will be slaughtered, and the waves of refugees headed for Europe will continue unabated.