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A nation must think before it acts.
In 1993, during the brutal civil war in Bosnia, the United Nations declared the Bosnian Muslim town of Srebrenica to be a “safe area” for civilians, protected by several hundred Dutch peacekeepers. Two years later, on July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb units overran the town. The out-gunned Dutch fired warning shots but decided not to put up any serious resistance. That evening, the Dutch commander drank a toast with the Bosnian Serb general, at the latter’s insistence, as they discussed the fate of the civilians. “I’m a piano player,”implored the Dutch officer in response to the general’s threats, “don’t shoot the piano player.” The pianist survived but many of the refugees did not. The Bosnian Serbs methodically massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. It was one of the worst atrocities on the European continent since the end of World War II.
It’s important to remember Srebrenica when considering the wisdom of creating “safe areas” in Syria. David Ignatius’s Atlantic article on the rise of ISIS is required reading for anyone interested in understanding the roots of the group’s insurgency. He’s surely right that “halfway American intervention”—as in Iraq and Libya, where Washington toppled regimes and then failed to build effective local forces to protect those countries’ populations—only invites chaos and disorder. Trying to win on the cheap may produce the worst of all worlds. As Carl von Clausewitz once wrote, “A short jump is certainly easier than a long one: but no one wanting to get across a wide ditch would begin by jumping halfway.”
But does it follow that a greater leap is the solution? What if the chasm is too wide to jump?
In Syria, Ignatius favors a more muscular international response, with the goal of building a new post-Assad regime through a regional political process. Crucially, he wants to create protected areas for Syrian civilians, or “safe zones in the north and south, where humanitarian assistance can be directed, Syrian refugees can return, and political compromise can be rediscovered.”
The appeal is obvious. By constructing a humanitarian ark, protected from air and ground attack, America and its partners might…