Ri Insights

A Contact Group Plan for Syria

Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, a US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is currently Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

By Christopher R. Hill

Exclusively written for RI Insights – Rai Institute


DENVER – Conflict and crisis may seem to be unique to their participants and contemporaries. But such episodes often play out according to distinct patterns – though usually after the events that comprise them have faded from our collective memory. Such is the case with Syria’s civil war.

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War. It was a brutal war for territory, in which civilians were targeted more often than combatants, making a mockery of international humanitarian law (indeed, it has taken decades to round up known war criminals, some of whose trials remain ongoing). And it was a war that divided the international community, especially the Western allies, as it grappled with its first post-Cold War crisis.

Today, the Bosnian War is barely remembered. When it is, observers typically cite the use of NATO airpower, as if that were the only factor that helped end it.

But Bosnia was an important war in history. With Europe and the United States drifting apart, it ultimately brought them closer together and put to rest questions about US preparedness to lead and work with others. In fact, much of what happened in Bosnia – including the effort, in its aftermath, to realize concepts of universal justice – has applications for the contemporary world.syr

Indeed, those who recall the Bosnian War can find many of its features in Syria today. Like Bosnia, Syria seems hopelessly divided among warring factions, and the violence there seems to be unstoppable. The international community has been unable to achieve any unity of action, much less agreement on a way forward.

Of course, there are important differences as well. But these, too, are instructive when it comes to Syria.

At several points during the Bosnian War, the view emerged that the international community should not deal with certain players. But, unlike in Syria, at no time did the view emerge that the international community should never deal with certain players. At one juncture, former US President Jimmy Carter went to the Bosnian Serb redoubt in Pale to meet with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, who now sits in a jail cell in The Hague.

The Bosnian War’s counterpart to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević. Though some Western diplomats opposed dealing with him, the vast majority understood that he was the key figure in controlling the Serbs and delivering peace. When US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his team (which included me) traveled to Belgrade to meet with Milošević in August 1995 (a month before agreement on a peace plan and ceasefire was reached), there was skepticism about the trip, but most serious voices understood the need to meet with him.

A similar decision today to meet with Assad would simply not be countenanced. One can only imagine the howls of derision that would be directed at President Barack Obama’s administration were it to send an envoy to Damascus for such a meeting.

What made the approach to Milošević possible was not that the 1990s were a gentler era (the Serbs’ campaign of ethnic cleansing, featuring concentration camps and capped by their genocidal attack on the Muslim Bosniaks of Srebrenica in July 1995, refute that notion). Rather, the key was the existence of a peace roadmap known as the Contact Group plan, which laid out an eventual solution for Bosnia. No one liked the Contact Group plan, but no one came up with a better solution than a federalized Bosnia, within its existing borders, that would provide guarantees for minorities.

That plan was eventually implemented in the Dayton Accords. To this day, it, too, has many detractors, especially among those who believe that the Bosniaks should have been given the means to do to the Serbs what the Serbs had tried to do to them. But few can argue that the Contact Group process did not end one of Europe’s bloodiest wars and create the conditions for eventually integrating the Balkans into transatlantic structures.

The Syrian conflict calls for a similar international effort and focus. “Leveling the battlefield” by providing weapons to moderates is, at best, a prescription for prolonged violence, with even more civilian casualties and refugees. A political plan for Syria is needed, one that envisages decentralized political structures within existing international borders, problematic as they may be.

Democracy entails not only majority rule, but also minority rights. Syria may be heading for eventual Sunni rule, displacing the political dominance of Assad’s Alawite sect. But Syria cannot be governed by just one political party or sectarian group. The country needs a power-sharing regime and the governance structures that protect it.

That concept is unlikely to emerge from the combatants themselves, which is why an international plan along these lines is so important. A Bosnia-style contact group would also orient all players – both the international community and Syria’s warring factions – by providing a simple litmus test for identifying “moderates.” One could simply ask who supports the plan and who does not.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.


Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and the author of Outpost.

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