The siege of Sarajevo has lessons for Syria today

Twenty years ago, the longest siege of the modern world came to an end. In Aleppo, another one may be about to begin, says Faisal Al Yafai

Serbian women and children watch protesters from the shattered windows of an apartment building in Sarajevo in 1995. (Reuters file)

Twenty years ago, the siege of Sarajevo finally came to an end. The siege was part of the various wars that contorted the Balkans for years after 1991. But its end came to be seen as a pivotal moment in the break-up of Yugoslavia. Amid the various conflicts and political arguments – and against a backdrop of extraordinarily complex Balkans history – the siege was easily understandable.

Two decades on, and not all that far away, another siege may be about to begin. The truce in Syria, the first major pause of the past five years, is continuing. It is tempting to see in it the seeds of the end of the conflict. But the fate of the country’s largest city, Aleppo, is still undecided. With the supply lines of the rebels now cut, the regime of president Bashar Al Assad is close to controlling the entire city. How it intends to reassert that control is not clear, but Syrians inside the city unsurprisingly fear being either starved or barrel-bombed into submission. A siege of Aleppo may begin the worst phase of this war.

As Aleppo is to Syria, Sarajevo was the largest city of Bosnia. In 1992, as Serb forces sought to carve out parts of Bosnian territory for a Serbian state, the city was besieged. For four years, it was encircled: the residents lived in fear of snipers and were shelled constantly. It was only after the Dayton Agreement was signed at the end of 1995 that the siege finally came to an end. When it concluded, it had lasted longer than the siege of Leningrad, the worst of the Second World War.

It is worth exploring how it came to an end and what lessons Sarajevo has for Syria today. Those who see parallels between the Dayton Agreement and the Geneva process over Syria point out that Dayton gathered together many of the most important players of the war – it was backed by the US, Russia, the European Union and others. The same argument is made for inclusion of various players in the Syria conflict, and for the value of diplomacy over military action.

That is true, but the parallel ignores one essential component. It was not a weariness of war that finally ended the Sarajevo siege and brought the parties to the table – it was the use of military might. The Nato bombings of 1995 proved to the Serb leadership that Europe was willing to use force; without them, there would have been no Dayton Agreement in December 1995.

Seen in that light, it is the Russian involvement in Syria that more closely parallels Nato’s in Yugoslavia. By showing that the Assad regime cannot be defeated by arms, Russia has made a peace process – however defined – more likely, even if the final result will not be to the liking of the Arabs nor the West – nor, indeed, most Syrians.

Another crucial difference is political will. After he became US president in 1992, Bill Clinton became involved in the war after the Srebrenica massacre. Without the US pushing for a solution – and demonstrating a willingness to use hard power to that end – the war would not have ended. The contrast with US involvement in Syria is obvious.

But there are even further differences, which suggest that a siege in Aleppo will be even worse than in Sarajevo. The main one is that while the various wars of Yugoslavia were largely contained within the geography of the Balkans, the war in Syria has not been contained. And if there is a prolonged siege of Aleppo, or a serious attack on the rebel-held parts of the city, there will be absolutely no way to stop more refugees going to Middle Eastern and European countries.

Moreover, there is not in Syria today any clear plan from the opposition for an end to the conflict. The various peace plans put forward in Yugoslavia during the early 1990s had some similarities to them, in that they envisaged dividing geographical locations along ethnic lines. This was, indeed, what the Serbs had originally wanted, and it was seen as the most straightforward solution, given that the Serbs and Bosnians were unlikely to be able to live together after the war.

There is no similar plan for Syria. As of now, the only long-term plan is the one that Mr Al Assad has proposed, which is to retake the major cities of Syria, and then fight a prolonged war with the rebel groups in the rest of the country, all the while brutalising his own population. Without a clear alternative to that plan, the conflict will almost certainly continue.

In Yugoslavia, the broad outline of regions divided along ethnic lines was accepted – albeit reluctantly – with the only real question being where these dividing lines would be drawn. In Syria, there is no agreement. Both the rebels and the regime want the whole of Syria.

That is the most frightening aspect of the Syrian war. Without a clear plan, there is little point to diplomacy. And that may mean something so horrific few have contemplated it. That far from the truce and the fate of Aleppo marking the end of the war, or the beginning of the end, it may well turn out to be merely the end of the beginning. As terrifying as it sounds, Syria’s war may yet have years to go.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai