3 Ways Kosovo Was Not Like Syria

The administration is trying to sell intervention by invoking the successful 1999 NATO air raid, but the two conflicts are totally dissimilar.
Flames from an explosion light up the Belgrade skyline after NATO cruise missiles and warplanes attacked Yugoslavia on March 24, 1999. (AP Photo/Dimitri Messinis)

On March 24, 1999, former President Bill Clinton explained the rationale for air strikes in Kosovo from the Oval Office: “'Ending this tragedy is a moral imperative,” he said. “Our children need and deserve a peaceful, stable, free Europe.”

Within minutes, NATO forces began pounding Serbia with cruise missiles and bombs, the start of what would become the largest military assault on Europe since World War II.

In 2000, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was ousted, an outcome many analysts think was the eventual result of the NATO air war.

Today, that 78-day bombing campaign is being used as a legal and moral precedent in the Obama administration’s case for intervention in Syria.

“The intervention in Kosovo, very unpopular, but, ultimately I think it was the right thing to do and the international community should be glad that it came together to do it,” President Obama said to reporters on Friday.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported that White House aides were examining the Kosovo campaign as a possible blueprint for justifying a Syria intervention. And as Obama and his team lobby for Congress’ support on Syria, Yugoslavia frequently works its way into the conversation:

“If the multilateral institution's set up to do it, the Security Council is being blocked and won't do it, that doesn't mean we should turn our backs and say there's nothing we can do,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week. “And we did it in Bosnia and made a difference; we saved countless numbers of lives. And I believe, Mr. -- the president of the United States believes we can do that now.”

The interventions in Yugoslavia in the 90s and the proposed strikes in Syria are similar in that in both cases, Western countries acted -- or would act -- without the consent of the UN Security Council. And in both, a breaking point had been reached: with Assad, it was chemical weapons, but in Kosovo, NATO had said ethnic cleansing was a “red line,” one that Serbs crossed with the Racak massacre of ethnic Albanians in 1999.

But looking at the picture on the ground, that’s where the parallels end.

First, it’s important to note that what NATO set out to accomplish in Kosovo was much more extensive than what we’re currently contemplating in Syria. NATO forces bombed Yugoslav military sites from the air after disabling the region’s air defenses. So far, Obama and his team have only suggested firing missiles at key sites in Syria from far-away ships, which would require less time and equipment.

Based on the dynamics of the conflicts, here are three major ways Kosovo and Syria differ:

1) Kosovo is in Europe. Obvious, right? But that’s important because it pertains to a big fear that non-interventionists have: That taking any sort of action might further inflame an already tumultuous region. Already, the conflict in Syria is spilling over into neighboring Lebanon and at times even into Turkey, but the Balkan ethnic violence was hemmed in by stable democracies to the north.

“Kosovo is in a much better neighborhood,” Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, told me. “Syria is surrounded by countries that are themselves in the midst of instability, so it’s a much tougher environment for outside powers to tame.”

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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