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Bosnians watching Syria with a sense of having been there

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — When snipers fired into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators in the capital of the newly declared state of Bosnia-Herzegovina in April 1992, few Bosnians imagined it would be the start of a 3 1/2 year war in which 11,541 men, women and children would die in the siege of Sarajevo alone.

Twenty years later, as they watch events in Syria unfold, some Bosnians wonder if they've seen this film before. Once again, they say, the international community is failing to act in the face of massive war crimes.

"The world swallowed the pill in Bosnia, where it became normal to hit apartments people live in and to burn cities randomly," said Ejup Ganic, a member of Bosnia's wartime collective presidency. "The international community allowed a crime against humanity in Bosnia. The same is happening in Syria."

He said the United States "should react," because it is "a superpower with human rights on the agenda." But he acknowledged that this is a U.S. presidential election year. "Unfortunately," he added, "there's a lack of leadership in the world when it comes to right versus wrong."

There are differences between Syria, now one year into its anti-government uprising, and Bosnia. For one, Bosnia was an internationally recognized independent nation, born out of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It had not even formed a military when Serbian forces, inheritors of Yugoslavia's military, pushed in and took the high ground around Sarajevo, from which they could fire with impunity into the city below.

Ganic drew that distinction in an interview, saying the Syrian government is assaulting its own people while Bosnia was the victim of aggression from an outside state.

Naser Oric, who as a young police officer led the defense of Srebrenica, famed as the site of the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys, also highlights that difference. He called Syria "more of a civil war."

"Our case was one of stirring the hatred of one nation against another," he said.

But there are also many parallels between what is taking place in Syria and what took place in Bosnia, and many say those parallels are more striking than the differences.

The war in Bosnia should have taught the lesson that "when faced with murderous dictatorships, appeasement does not work," two Bosnian authors, Emir Suljagic, a survivor of Srebrenica, and Reuf Bajrovic, now a political consultant in Washington, wrote last month in Today's Zaman, a Turkish daily newspaper.

Noting the Syrian military's 26-day bombardment of the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, they said the pattern of killings is straight from the Bosnia narrative: encirclement of a population center, cutoff of its food and basic services, a campaign of indiscriminate violence, then a roundup, followed by selection and execution "in total isolation."

International observers familiar with both wars see the overlaps.

"There is a certain deja vu quality" to the war in Syria, said Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesman for Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League. For one thing, the major powers, starting with the United States, have turned the issue over to the U.N.

"The United States is leaving it in the hands of Kofi Annan, as is the rest of the world," Fawzi told McClatchy. And Annan today, like the U.N.-backed mediators during the Bosnia conflict, cannot threaten force if Syria refuses to honor its own diplomatic commitments to stop the assaults on civilians.

"Of course, we have a bad feeling about what's going on," Fawzi told McClatchy. "We have to deal with the cards that we've been given. We have to take the Syrian position seriously. We continue to be skeptical."

But, he added, "We're the only path in town. There is no alternative."

A Bosnian businessman who now heads the Balkan branch of Al Jazeera satellite news channel said that bringing in the U.N. in this manner gave equal standing to criminals and world statesman.

"Why don't people understand: You don't negotiate ... the non-negotiable with criminals," said Edhem Foco, the general manager of the new Al Jazeera Balkans television network.

Just as then, the United States is in the throes of a presidential election campaign. Then, the president was George H.W. Bush, a Republican, who was running for re-election amid revelations that Bosnian Serbs had set up a chain of concentration camps around Bosnia and organized the systematic rape of Bosnian women.

Today, of course, it is Barack Obama, who, many observers say, is highly reluctant to get involved in a complex conflict, especially one where Russia is actively backing the other side.

"Everyone is being very cautious, because it is an election year," said a State Department official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak more candidly. "There was hope that the Arab League" — long a synonym for a dysfunctional organization — "would lead," he added.

Does that spell a leadership vacuum, he was asked. "I agree," the official said.

American officials opposed to U.S. military intervention argue that there is no strategic American interest at stake in Syria. That argument was also made about Bosnia, which like Syria, has no oil.

Some analysts, however, think that a continued war in Syria has major implications for world peace, just as Bosnia did.

"Syria has regional and global implications," Fawzi told McClatchy. "If Syria descends into a bloody and protracted war, it would be carnage. You would see violence in the region for a decade."

Both wars began in the wake of epochal events that transformed the respective regions. Bosnia came on the heels of the collapse of communism throughout Eastern Europe. Syria's uprising began in the early months of the Arab Spring, just weeks after mass demonstrations had forced the resignations of autocratic presidents in Tunisia and Egypt.

Both wars have religious aspects. In Bosnia, the conflict pitted Orthodox Christian Serbs against Roman Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians.

In Syria, the uprising has been concentrated among Sunni Muslims, who comprise at least 60 percent of the population, and many of the country's Kurds, who comprise about 10 percent of the population. Both groups have chafed under four decades of dictatorial rule by the late Hafez Assad and his son Bashar, who have used primarily Alawite — a Shiite Muslim sect — to staff the security ministries.

The provision of humanitarian aid is one of the biggest differences between Syria and Bosnia. A food airlift began just months into the siege after French President Francois Mitterrand visited Sarajevo. The airlift made it possible "for Bosnians to die with food in their stomach," said Foco of Al Jazeera Balkans.

To date, Syrian President Assad has refused to permit the provision of humanitarian aid or the creation of corridors for its delivery.

Well over 100,000 Bosnians died during the 1992-1995 war. After slightly more than a year of violence, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has estimated that at least 9,000 civilians have died in Syria. Anti-Assad activists say the toll is much higher.


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