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

Europe, Middle East

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

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.

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