“Gotov je!” (“He’s finished!”)
—Serb resistance slogan, directed at Milosevic
- understanding and undermining his sources of power;
- isolating him and delegitimizing his leadership at home and abroad;
- quietly uniting, training and supporting the domestic opposition; and
- successfully deterring a spoiling attack on Montenegro.
Together these efforts tipped the psychological climate in Serbia.Also key was the international nature of the effort. The Secretary of State and her senior advisers were in regular contact with their European counterparts. The European Union pointedly excluded Serbia from a new Stability Pact for Southeast Europe, showing that a democratic Serbia had a place in Europe but not a Serbia ruled by Milosevic. Former activists from new NATO members helped train OTPOR. Military officials in NATO partner countries warned Serb security forces against supporting a falling dictator. Another key to success was the interagency nature of the effort. Senior interagency bodies met regularly to approve strategy and review implementation. A senior adviser to the Secretary of State oversaw strategy development and implementation. An Ambassador in a neighboring country coordinated efforts in the field. The staff of the National Security Council coordinated interagency efforts, including sanctions, information operations and politico-military planning. A final key to success—indeed a prerequisite—was a presidential decision at the outset that U.S. national interests, including peace in the Balkans and the success of U.S. military commitments there, required the removal of Milosevic. Presidential commitment remained essential in the face of an endgame that could have turned violent but fortunately did not. Lessons for Syria? Syria is not Serbia, and Assad is not Milosevic. Milosevic, while brutal, never directed at fellow Serbian nationals the same the level of violence used by Assad. Nor, of course, was Serbia by 1999 nearly as heterogeneous a society as Syria is today. A democratic wave had recently washed over eastern and central Europe, giving hope to Serbian democrats; the so-called Arab Spring has so far produced no such comparable regional trend around Syria. The Serbian opposition used peaceful resistance and the ballot box, whereas the Syrian resistance—under forceful attack by Assad’s security forces—has taken up arms. Moreover, while Milosevic found diplomatic support from Moscow and Beijing, as Assad does today, he never had the active backing of a rogue state like Iran. Our international partners in ousting Milosevic were in Europe, united through a long-standing formal alliance and a shared horror of recent atrocities. The “Friends of Syria” is a larger and more disparate group with less commonality in views or purpose and certainly no comparable ability to wield integrated military force in Syria. Most important, perhaps, the United States and its allies did not need to worry overly much that what would follow Milosevic might be worse for the Serbian people, the region and U.S. interests. In Syria, that has never been clear, and this difference obviously affects the calculation of U.S. interests and actions. There are thus obvious limits in applying lessons from ousting Milosevic to regime change in Syria. That said, what we learned in Serbia suggests considering the following actions, many of which the Obama Administration is already pursuing but several of which it appears not to be:
- develop an in-depth intelligence assessment of the regime, its supporters and its vulnerabilities;
- identify and undercut key pillars of power (for example, police, state media, close associates);
- attack the regime’s legitimacy through international isolation and information operations;
- secure the widest possible international support, particularly in the region, and use it to demonstrate that regime change will lift international isolation and bring benefits to the country;
- help the opposition to unify, to identify regime weaknesses, to communicate with the public, and to expand its operations;
- co-opt or marginalize potential spoilers, whether domestic opposition leaders or outside powers;
- convince the ruler that being out of power is safer for himself and his family than being in power; convince those around him that forcing his departure is essential to their political, economic or personal survival;
- block courses of action that the ruler might take to distract the population, undercut the opposition or fracture international cohesion;
- lead an international effort, synchronizing the activities of others, leveraging their knowledge and influence, while minimizing U.S. visibility as necessary to protect opposition legitimacy;
- seek and showcase bipartisan support, so as to discourage the regime from concluding or suggesting to its supporters that it can outlast a particular U.S. administration.
Regional specialists within and outside the Administration—and this author is not one of them!1—need to assess whether and how such efforts might apply in the case of Syria. Numerous other factors also need to be considered, such as how to secure Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons and interdict Iranian support to the regime.Finally, it is important to recognize that results may be neither prompt nor predictable. U.S. efforts to oust Milosevic spanned two years and could have easily spanned two administrations. Even then, a successful culmination was not preordained had not Milosevic misjudged in his call for early elections. There were also surprises: The sudden and unwarned deployment of Russian ground forces to Pristina after the NATO air strikes is a good example, one that could even be pertinent in today’s situation. Uncertainty is not reason for inaction, however. The struggle for power in Syria is set in a larger struggle for power within the Middle East. Considering our allies and interests, the United States has a strong stake in the outcome. American leadership—sometimes visible, sometimes behind the scenes—can help create conditions for “finishing” Assad and advancing our own national security interests as a new Syrian order develops. The creative use of our own recent experience can help. 1While I am not an expert on Syria, as U.S. Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2005 to 2009, I helped initiate an IAEA investigation of an undeclared nuclear reactor being built in Syria with North Korean help before its destruction by Israel. The Syrian government has refused to cooperate fully in the investigation. A change in regime could expose the details of this program and North Korean involvement.