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Lessons From Russian and Balkan History on How to Stop the War in Syria

The current debate on the use and ban of chemical weapons in Syria is a salient testimony to a seemingly forgone notion in crisis diplomacy: the downward spiral of conflict doesn't end until the strategic interests of the key players are addressed -- in this case, the United States and its allies, versus Russia and its allies. The ban of chemical weapons is important for Syria, Iran, and the region, and the future of global security. However, it is even more critical to stop the fighting and carnage in Syria that has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the existence of the United Nations. Beyond bringing stability to this already beleaguered region, doing so is also imperative for securely moving and eliminating chemical weapons in Syria.

Syria has been, is, and will be of great importance for Russia -- hence President Putin's determination to win this crisis by all means. The diplomatic situation today seems reminiscent of the 1850s and of the pre-World War 1914 period. While we are not on the brink of a world war, this analogy is alarmingly significant. On the one hand, Russia sees herself again as the defender of Christianity and now against Jihadists. On the other, Russia grasps the diplomatic initiative which was offered -- perhaps accidentally by Secretary Kerry -- as a result of American indecision and weak leadership. In 1914, Russia undertook everything possible to not lose another major war -- as they did in 1905 against Japan. Today, President Putin's Russia has another critical interest: not to lose in the diplomatic and strategic contest with the United States, which currently has a president who is perceived as weak, undecided, and difficult to predict in foreign policy.

After the perception of having lost the diplomatic game in the UN Security Council regarding Libya, amidst other troubling implications of the Arab Spring, and having accepted too many frustrating arrangements in the post-Cold War period, President Putin appears to want to carry the day diplomatically on Syria, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and to fill in wherever a U.S. vacuum is perceived.

Syria has been a key Middle East ally for decades. As a result, Russia does not want the (Islamic) opposition, nor the U.S., and its friends to win (again). Thousands of Syrian officials, administrators, teachers, and soldiers have been trained and educated by Russia and East Germany. Thousands of Russians are now living in Syria, and Russian women are wives of thousands of Syrian men, many of whom are serving as officers in the Assad Regime. There is even talk of thousands of volunteers in Russia signing up to fight for the Assad regime. Syria has been closely connected to the Caucasus and Sochi on the Black Sea via the Armenians, Circassians, Chechens, and other Caucasians who live there. Many of these ethnic groups have become increasingly involved in the fighting. Some of these ethnic groups are on Assad's side, but many, like jihadist Chechens, are on the side of the opposition -- even maintaining select al Qaida connections -- to fight Assad's regime and its key ally Russia.

Incidentally, Sochi is located in the region where the Circassians were expelled from by Czarist Russia in the 19th century. Today, it is the place of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games -- a hopeful event of national pride with historic dimensions for Russia and President Putin. Russia wants peace and stability in and around Sochi. Thus, there are manifold deeper connections between Russia and Syria that very much suggest the high relevance of Syria for Putin's Russia.

Besides focusing on chemical weapons, the United States must engage Russia, Iran, and all key actors of the UN Security Council and the region to reach a modus vivendi that would engender a ceasefire and allow for effective humanitarian operations. This is the only path forward for meaningful peace negotiations that will end the bloodshed and stabilize the region. Additionally, it should be mentioned that effective control of WMDs inside Syria can only be done securely without ongoing fighting.

The current argument for military intervention by the U.S. and its allies -- to stop the use of chemical agents -- may appear disingenuous to those in the region who vividly remember as the United States and its allies stood silently on the side of Iraq's Saddam Hussein as his forces used chemical agents on Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war, as well as against the Kurds. Today, more than 110,000 Syrians have already lost their lives to conventional ammunitions and brutality -- and many thousands are maimed, and more than 4 million are displaced. As UPI has reported, daily death tolls can reach 150 in Syria, and from this it can be fairly estimated that over 2000 Syrians have died due to conventional weapons since the now infamous Sarin gas attacks on August 21.

The conflict has potentially serious strategic ramifications for Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the international system. Beyond the politics of regional powers vying for influence in the future of the Syrian state, more than 3 million Syrian refugees are engulfing the region. This will have an impact for generations to come.

According to Col. Sam Gardiner, USAF (ret.), Syria is known to have significant biological weapons capability, possibly including anthrax, plague, and cholera. However, such biological WMDs could be used by any party in a conflict in case they get a hold of them. Russia insists that a chemical weapons attack was undertaken by the opposition forces in Aleppo in March 2013. Incidentally, the U.S., its allies, and Russia reacted firmly to the Assad regime's apparent preparation of chemical weapons in November 2012, which then brought an end to the military's intent on using them.

While any comparisons of Syria with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s may not entirely hold true, the lessons of crisis diplomacy in the Balkans could prove helpful to resolve the crisis in Syria. In the Bosnian War, concerted international action, under the clear American leadership of President Clinton and Richard Holbrooke led to the Dayton Peace Accords. The Kosovo Crisis of 1998-99 first saw the faltering of the Rambouillet negotiations. These were followed by a successful combination of NATO bombings of Serbia, the threat of NATO ground offensive, and the delivery of the sealed indictments from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) against President Slobodan Milosevic and Vice President Milan Milutinovic -- all without UN Security Council approval, but with decisive United States leadership. Although, some attribute elements of the current tensions between the United States and Russia regarding the Georgia War in 2008 to the U.S.-led Kosovo campaign.

I still remember the 1995 Bosnia war, when devastating mortar rounds killed women and children in a Sarajevo market, but the culprits could not be identified with certainty. It remains unclear whether a party inflicted these crimes to invite international intervention. Therefore, it must be unequivocal that whoever uses chemical and/or biological weapons will be held accountable, and referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Ending today's conflict in Syria demands determined leadership, forceful cooperation, and an effective international negotiator firmly backed by great power(s). They have to push their respective clients and allies to agree to and maintain an enforceable ceasefire, accompanied by immediate humanitarian assistance. It has to be understood by all that leaving the crisis to linger is not advantageous for any party, let alone a disaster for the Syrian people and the region for generations to come. Our response to Syria will set the precedent for how international peace and security will be maintained in the years ahead.