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Syria isn’t Bosnia. And no, the problem isn’t ‘ancient hatreds.’

- November 17, 2015
A Syrian pro-government fighter walks near the Kweyris military air base in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo on Nov. 11. Syria’s army broke a more than year-long jihadist siege of a military air base in the country’s north, scoring its first major breakthrough since Russia’s air campaign began. (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)

As Syria’s civil war drags on, there seems to be no viable solution in sight. To the non-specialist eye, the conflict is an indecipherable mess of rival militias, peoples and faiths. As in many conflicts, observers have taken it upon themselves to offer definitive accounts and simple solutions. One such oversimplification is the growing tendency to compare Syria’s conflict to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

An especially prominent aspect of this narrative has been to argue that Syria needs its own “Dayton”: that is, a version of the American-brokered peace accord that ended the Bosnian War in 1995. This dangerous and inaccurate comparison would have disastrous consequences — as it has had in Bosnia-Herzegovina — if taken seriously by policymakers.

This unfortunate trend reared its head again last week in a “Foreign Policy” polemic by the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, retired Adm. James Stavridis. Stavridis argues that the war in Syria today resembles the “ancient hatreds” explanation for ethnic conflict he (incorrectly) claims existed in the Balkans.

The “ancient hatreds” thesis is the idea that groups of people fight each other because they have always despised one another due to differences of identity and culture. According to this argument, if ancient hatreds drive conflict in Syria like they did in the Balkans, then the solution to Syria’s similarly intractable conflict, Stavridis suggests, should follow the Dayton Accords model, which, he argues, dealt adequately with ethnically divided Balkan populations.

Stavridis, who commanded the destroyer USS Barry in an early 1990s deployment to Bosnia, is not alone in making this parallel, however incorrect it might be. For a generation of policymakers and analysts, the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991 and its subsequent wars of succession was a watershed moment. As violence unfolded across the region, thousands of diplomats and journalists cut their professional teeth trying to make sense of the havoc. When these same policymakers and writers see only vaguely similar environments today, they instinctively leap back to the Balkans, whether the analogy makes sense or not.

The tendency of Western pundits to oversimplify and misidentify the causes of international conflicts based on poorly considered comparisons has a long and ignominious history. In the particular case of the “ancient ethnic hatreds” argument, many policymakers seized upon Robert D. Kaplan’s popular 1993 book, “Balkan Ghosts,” as the definitive explanation of what caused the Yugoslav conflicts. In our view, Kaplan’s work stands out as singular in its ignorance. The misguided policy it wrought in the Balkans has been disastrous.

In the book, Kaplan argues that Yugoslavia was undone by the “ancient ethnic hatreds” of its myriad peoples. “Balkan Ghosts” continues to exert a terrifying reach on the minds of analysts for whom the work’s key conceit is a definitive explanatory thesis for all disputes among all peoples whose names we struggle to pronounce. While many have ably deconstructed the error of Kaplan’s central thesis, the argument has worryingly re-emerged in the current debate on Syria.

Kaplan’s argument and those that flow from it are, quite simply, wrong. To begin with, neither Syria’s nor Bosnia-Herzegovina’s history is comprised of a constant stream of ethnic warfare. Siniša Malešević has convincingly detailed the fact that the Balkans have actually experienced fewer wars throughout history than any other region of Europe. In fact, the notion of constant Balkan conflict mostly comes from journalistic accounts of the 1821 Greek War of Independence, an imagined narrative that has been projected onto the region ever since.

Harris Mylonas and other scholars have shown that the construction of ethnic identity emerges primarily in response to political incentives. Mylonas argues that the construction of national identities occurs primarily when state-building elites feel threatened by competitors or new modes of political thinking and organizing. Building on the work of Benedict Anderson, Mylonas also shows that “who counts” as a member of the nation is fluid and contingent on external factors, not ancient definitions of tribes that extend back thousands of years.

Finally, the ancient hatreds myth holds ethnicity to be unchanging and assumes that conflict is natural. But peace has been more common than warfare throughout the history of both Syria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Current scholarship shows that the relationship between ethnicity and conflict is complicated and nuanced.

For example, ethnicity can be mobilized by political entrepreneurs through symbolic politics. It can provoke emotive responses of fear, anger and rage against different ethnic groups after shifts in domestic power balances. And the distribution of ethnic ties across the organs of state power might affect the ability to mobilize against the state.

Thus, how ethnicity may be mobilized in states is important for understanding conflict, but assuming that ethnicity itself causes constant, historic conflict is empirically and theoretically false.

Sadly, the narratives Kaplan and his followers peddled in the 1990s have found an afterlife in today’s discourse on Syria. As a result, the Syrian war, much like the Yugoslav dissolution, has been often painted as a fundamentally intractabletimeless conflict rooted in the primal urges of its respective combatants. This narrative has contributed decisively to a culture of indifference and reluctance among Western leaders to act in any meaningful capacity to aid the people of Syria. Writing off a conflict as based in “ancient hatreds” makes it easy for international actors to excuse their lack of coherent policy, or worse, to offer simplistic solutions.

The classic policy approach of adherents of the Kaplan school of history has been to argue for partition. Since the respective ethnic communities in these states have never harmoniously co-existed, they argue, it follows that peace will only emerge when the international community helps them to construct functional but firm barriers between each other.  Thus, what is increasingly being proposed as a solution for Syria is what “ended” the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in this view: internationally supervised ethnic partition. But amid their rush toward ethnic segregation as a one-stop-shop for peace, Western policy makers fail to address the actual drivers of conflict in both the Balkans and Syria: unresponsive, exclusionary political institutions.

As we have argued elsewhere, Dayton is far from a model peace accord. The reasons Dayton was a successful peace agreement have far more to do with the defeat of those leading the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia than with the embrace of the ethnic segregation central to the accords. By legitimizing ethnic divisions established through violence, Dayton locked in place a peculiar commitment to peace through largely unaccountable “power sharing” mechanisms exclusive to the country’s ethnic elites.

And it isn’t working. Post-war Bosnian history has clearly shown the deficiencies of ethnic federalism as a basis for constitutional order. High levels of dissatisfaction among young people and protests in February 2014 showed that Bosnia-Herzegovina’s “ethnic peace” has largely prevented political and economic growth, and there is strong likelihood of future social conflict in the country.

Volumes have been written on Dayton’s shortcomings but its central flaw mirrors the incoherence of the “ancient hatreds” thesis that was pivotal to its origins. Namely, by explicitly dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina, and every aspect of its government and public administration, along ethnic lines, the Dayton constitution has institutionalized the very drivers of conflict its architects believed to be the causes of the war in the first place. To govern within the parameters of the contemporary Bosnian constitution, effectively, one has to be a nationalist. No substantive co-operation among Bosnia’s leaders is thus ever possible, and renewed conflict remains a perpetual threat.

Of course, even a bad peace agreement is preferable to war. Yet if 20 years since Dayton silenced Bosnia-Herzegovina’s guns, the fear of renewed hostilities in the country remains significant, then something is clearly amiss. This is not the fault of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina but rather of the warlords and war profiteers in whose image the Dayton constitutional order was cast, and who continue to dominate the country’s politics thanks to this same constitution’s perverse, chauvinist incentives. Accordingly, ensnaring Syria in a similar peace agreement would be no guarantee of peace or security and would likely produce similar or worse results.

If there is indeed a Balkan lesson for Syria, it is to avoid basing our views on myths, rather than facts. To follow “Syrian Ghosts” merely sets the stage for counterproductive ethnic partition agreements. Only when policymakers realize the poverty of the “Dayton model” and the absurd mythologies at its root can we begin to have an informed conversation about Syria’s war and, more importantly, its long-overdue peace.

Benjamin Denison is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD candidate in political science at York University.