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Article posted: 4/4/2012 1:00 AM

A lesson we fail to learn

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By RICHARD COHEN

We are coming up on a melancholy anniversary. On April 5, 1992, Suada Dilberovic and Olga Sucic were shot and killed. They were attending a peace rally in Sarajevo when Serbian snipers opened fire. The two women were the first of more than 100,000 people killed over the next few years. The Bosnian war had begun.

This is also an instructive anniversary. Much of what characterized the Bosnian war, including hideous barbarity, is now occurring in Syria. Once again, we are seeing sectarian butchery. Once again, we are confronted with a travelogue of peoples, religions, sects, tribes and clans. Once again, we are being warned of the daunting challenges of topography -- the Syrian desert, the Syrian mountains, the Syrian cities. Once again we are being told that arming the opposition would exacerbate the killing.

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All these arguments were made about Bosnia. The book "Balkan Ghosts" had been published in 1993. It was a good book, read by Bill Clinton, then the president. Robert Kaplan, the author, peeled back layer upon layer of nationalities and religions -- a Balkan peninsula peopled by ethnic groups known only to stamp collectors. It was a religious mosh pit -- Roman Catholics, Orthodox Catholics, Muslims and Jews living in harmonious anxiety. Kaplan portrayed it as a mysterious, deeply exotic place of blood feuds and incomprehensible politics. The book's message was unmistakable: Stay out.

Clinton did. I thought he was right. I had visited the region. It was an intimidating place of furious hatreds and difficult terrain -- mountainous and forested. A felled tree could stop a regiment. The weather -- cold and snowy at higher elevations, warm and foggy in the valleys -- could obstruct bombing. I thought Bosnia was no place for America or NATO to intervene. I was wrong. Clinton ultimately reversed course and NATO bombed. It worked; the killing ended.

Now the "Friends of Syria" are slowly coming to the conclusion that more has to be done to help the insurgents. This loose coalition, created because Russia and China stymied any United Nations action, now says it is going to provide the Syrian opposition with funds and communications equipment. This is a step -- a small step, as it happens -- in the right direction, but for the moment arms will not be shipped. Still, this creep toward intervention has to account for the Syrian government's last-minute offer of a cease-fire. This too has a Bosnian precedent -- promise much, do little.

The Syrian insurrection is now, really, a civil war. More than 9,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians. For Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, there is no turning back. He will never agree to any plan in which he surrenders power because that would mean his death. (He might, however, flee the country and so the West should restrain the impulse to indict him on war crimes.) The ante will only be upped. Much more killing is on the way.

The Friends of Syria fret. At their meeting Sunday in Istanbul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that Assad has not, as almost no one expected, lived up to his agreement with Kofi Annan to end the fighting. "The world must judge Assad by what he does, not by what he says," Clinton said. Yes, indeed. And what he does is kill his fellow Syrians. What others do is virtually nothing.

Hillary Clinton is the last person in the world who needs to be reminded of the lessons of Bosnia. She was in the White House when her husband reversed himself and authorized the bombing that ended the war. She is hearing the same arguments against arming the rebels, against bombing Syrian troop positions or government ministries. She is hearing, too, the same cautions -- the admonitions of experts who will tell you of Shiites and Sunnis and Alawites and how no one even knows who leads the opposition.

It is a mess. But it is always a mess. It is up to the United States to help establish a leadership. There is an art to these things and the State Department knows how to do it. There is also an inevitable progression to such wars and Bosnia shows the way. The Syrian war will worsen. Many more people will be killed and, finally, the U.S. will have to show Turkey and Saudi Arabia how these things are done.

The bridge where Suada Dilberovic and Olga Sucic were killed is now named for them. Maybe there will be a ceremony. The Friends of Syria ought to attend. There are lessons to be learned there.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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