The American Interest
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Overthrowing Milosevic: Lessons for Syria?
Published on August 15, 2012

“Gotov je!” (“He’s finished!”)
—Serb resistance slogan, directed at Milosevic

An arrogant dictator grasping at power, warning of terrorists at every turn. An opposition fragmented, but growing in both coherence and strength. An uncertain future, in a region prone to violence.

In some ways, Syria today evokes memories of Serbia 12 years ago, when its ruler, Slobodan Milosevic, faced growing domestic opposition. Like Assad today, Milosevic was determined to stay in power. Like Assad, Milosevic had an ally in Moscow who was prepared to do much to protect him—up to a point. But of course, differences abound. Milosovic fell after a protracted and overt U.S.-led NATO military operation; no such operation has occurred or seems likely to occur in Syria. The opposition confronting Milosevic was peaceful, whereas the power struggle in Syria is violent and growing more so by the day. Indeed, in Syria, a political revolt has become a sectarian war with outside forces providing arms and other forms of aid to the opposition. And in Syria, the dictator has a powerful regional ally in Iran, whereas Milosevic had none The Syrian opposition is divided between exiles and those across the border in Turkey and those within; in Serbia, few opposition forces were outside the country.

Despite the many differences between the two cases, it is still worth recalling some basic lessons from the effort to depose a dictator in Serbia. Some of these lessons may serve policymakers today as they consider how best to rid Syria of Assad, and, perhaps more important, how to plan for the aftermath.

Deposing a Dictator

The basic outlines of what happened in Serbia a dozen years ago are clear enough. In 2000, Slobodan Milosevic, then President of what remained of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia set the stage for his own demise. He did so by calling for elections, seeking to bolster his legitimacy at home and abroad, while miscalculating his own ability to fix the results.

Personally and politically, Milosevic had survived the previous year’s NATO Operation Allied Force: 78 days of air strikes against Serbia and its forces in Kosovo. While it took longer than the United States and its allies anticipated, the campaign of military strikes and non-military measures ultimately succeeded, compelling Milosevic to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, withdraw Serb security forces and consent to the introduction of a UN administration and NATO-led force.

Milosevic was a survivor. Despite instigating massive ethnic violence in Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s, he had emerged unscathed as leader of Serbia and he was, in the end, a signatory of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. Many analysts predicted that the 1999 NATO air strikes would cement Milosevic’s grip on power. Instead, Milosevic was weakened, his political legitimacy tarnished at home and abroad.

Milosevic’s confrontation with the UN and NATO isolated him internationally. He also faced growing opposition domestically. In September 1999, opposition rallies in twenty Serbian cities urged Milosevic to resign. The police and army cracked down, but Milosevic’s regime had difficulty suppressing opposition leaders and the student movement OTPOR—Serbian for “resistance.” OTPOR, a loosely organized network of activists trained in peaceful resistance, used a variety of nonviolent tactics to excoriate the regime and build popular support.

In January 2000, OTPOR organized an Orthodox New Year’s Eve rally against Milosevic’s rule. In April, 100,000 citizens of Serbia gathered in Belgrade to call for early presidential elections. In May, Serbian opposition parties, despite a history of fragmentation and in-fighting, united under the Democratic Opposition of Serbia to put forward a single candidate: Vojislav Kostunica.

In July, Milosevic made his mistake, announcing early elections in September. He probably gambled that he could control the media, divide the opposition and deny them time to organize and build support. He probably also gambled on stuffing the ballot boxes, particularly those coming over the border from Kosovo, still nominally part the Yugoslav republic.

The Democratic Opposition of Serbia stayed united. In August, OTPOR launched a countrywide campaign dubbed “Gotov je!” (“He’s finished!”). Volunteers pasted “Gotov je!” stickers across Serbia, including over Milosevic’s campaign posters.

For the September elections, OTPOR and the opposition recruited, trained, and organized more than 30,000 volunteers to monitor the vote. The UN and NATO collaborated to interdict stuffed ballot boxes coming from Kosovo. When the observers announced Kostunica’s victory, the Milosevic-controlled Federal Election Commission called for a run-off. A united opposition refused and called for a general strike.

In October, coal miners—previously among Milosevic’s strongest supporters—went on strike and then led a march on Belgrade, using a bulldozer to push away barricades. Serbia’s police and military, in contact with the opposition, refused to intervene. It seemed that Serbia had passed the tipping point all despots fear: When the regime fears the people more than the people fear the regime.

Milosevic acknowledged defeat on October 6 after a private meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister. Standing before the television cameras, Milosevic looked stunned. His self-confidence shattered.. “Gotov je!” had gone from slogan to reality.

Kostunica assumed the Yugoslav presidency, opening the door to the normalization of Serbia’s relations with the United State and Europe. Under international pressure, the Serbian government arrested Milosevic in April 2001 then extradited him to The Hague to be tried for war crimes before an international tribunal. The “Butcher of the Balkans” died of a heart attack before his trial could conclude. Nevertheless, his removal set the stage for bringing democracy to Serbia and bringing Serbia back into Europe. The interests of the Serb people, the region and the United States and its allies were well served, even as U.S. relations with Russia were sustained despite some strong differences.

Supporting the Overthrow

The people of Serbia ousted Milosevic. But they had help.

Even before NATO’s air strikes, the Clinton Administration had decided that Slobodan Milosevic, while a signatory of the Dayton Peace Accords for Bosnia, was an obstacle to peace throughout the region. In September 1998, in face of anti-Albanian violence in Kosovo instigated by Milosevic, the Administration developed and began to implement a strategy to weaken his rule.

In December 1998, the basic strategy was agreed. The first element was to strengthen democratic forces in Serbia, including the political opposition, student movements and independent media. The second element was to bolster President Djukanovic of neighboring Montenegro, an increasingly independent province of the federal republic, as a counterweight to Milosevic. The third element was to undermine Milosevic’s pillars of power, including his security services, finances and control of the media.

Setting the Conditions

NATO’s air campaign, initiated in March 1999, aimed to protect the Albanian population in Kosovo, not to topple Milosevic. In April, with Milosevic refusing to meet NATO demands, the Administration strengthened its effort to support his removal. In a major address, President Clinton called for a “democratic transition in Serbia, for the region’s democracies will never be safe with a belligerent tyranny in their midst.”

As Operation Allied Force extended into May, the Administration broadened its politico-military planning from air strikes backed by diplomacy to a more comprehensive strategic campaign. The campaign encompassed a wide range of diplomatic, information, military, economic and financial measures and sought to bring pressure directly on Milosevic and his regime. A diplomatic effort, lead by the Deputy Secretary of State, sought to show Milosevic that he was faced with increasing international isolation and a weakening, if not an eventual full withdrawal, of Russian support.

Immediate military objectives of the strategic campaign plan remained focused on reducing Serbia’s ability to conduct operations in Kosovo. However, intermediate objectives now included exacerbating the security forces’ discontent with Milosevic’s leadership, convincing Milosevic “cronies” that a settlement—including through his possible removal—would be better than continued recalcitrance, and building public discontent and opposition with Milosevic’s continued rule.

NATO air strikes began including regime-related targets such as leadership, state-controlled media and crony assets that met legal targeting requirements. They were complemented by diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions and information operations designed to isolate Milosevic and undermine his pillars of support. A “Ring Around Serbia” of radio stations broadcast truthful information into the country, undercutting Milosevic’s efforts to squash reports of defeats and defections. NATO aircraft dropped leaflets with photos of Milosevic’s son lounging on a yacht while Serbia’s other sons were being conscripted to fight.

In the final weeks of the air campaign, the United States used the diplomatic end game to keep Milosevic isolated internationally. A newly issued war-crimes indictment against Milosevic helped discourage diplomatic freelancing by outside parties. The goal was to deny Milosevic international recognition that he could use to restore political legitimacy at home. In the end, rather than sending Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to negotiate a settlement with Milosevic, who would have used such a meeting to elevate his standing, a NATO general met with Serbian counterparts to agree on military technical arrangements to codify his surrender.

NATO’s air campaign significantly weakened Milosevic politically. It also strengthened the resolve of the nineteen NATO allies that Milosevic had to go. This set the stage for a concerted international effort, after the air strikes were over, to force him out.

Forcing Him Out

In July 1999, a month after the conclusion of NATO’s intervention, the Administration agreed to pursue an aggressive democratization program for Serbia. The program continued efforts to undermine Milosevic’s sources of power, including support for independent media. It also put increased emphasis on building a cohesive and effective opposition. President Clinton announced additional funding to support democracy.

Using that funding, non-governmental organizations like the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute provided advice and support to independent civil organizations and opposition parties in Serbia. IRI helped organize training of OTPOR in strategic non-violence. NDI used polling data to help opposition candidates understand Milosevic’s political vulnerabilities and the importance of unifying behind one candidate. With U.S. encouragement, neighboring countries provided a safe place for the opposition to meet, strategize and train.

Kostunica was a committed Serbian nationalist and by no means a “U.S. candidate.” Indeed, he and his close advisers harbored a decided anti-American streak. However, the Administration believed that Kostunica would abide by his country’s constitution and international commitments. Equally important, polling data showed Kostunica was the only member of the opposition who could beat Milosevic. Quiet U.S. engagement, backed with polling data and conditions on electoral support, encouraged the opposition to unify behind him.

With the opposition growing stronger, the Clinton Administration in February 2000 adopted an updated strategy aimed at Milosevic’s removal. The strategy pressed forward with isolating Milosevic and promoting opposition unity and effectiveness. It targeted sanctions against Milosevic’s regime and its supporters and sought to demonstrate that his removal would benefit the Serbian people. Finally, the strategy sought to shore up Kosovo and Montenegro against any attempt by Milosevic to foment a crisis to distract from his growing problems in Serbia.

After Milosevic’s July call for elections, the Administration again updated its plans. The updated plan aimed to make the elections a referendum for the ouster of Milosevic, while fully recognizing that he would spare no effort to rig them. The plan involved supporting the political opposition in presenting a unified challenge and maximizing the cost to the regime of committing electoral fraud. Planning involved efforts to expose cheating, channel public anger and encourage civil disobedience immediately after a stolen vote.

The Administration also developed a plan to deter Milosevic from launching a spoiling attack on Montenegro; it was concerned that he would do so as a way to interdict support for the opposition or as an excuse to call off the elections. The United States provided diplomatic and economic support to the Djukanovic government and conducted robust information operations based on military activities in the region in order to keep Milosevic and his generals uncertain about a possible NATO or U.S. response to an attack.

The Administration also sought to bring Russia on its side. The White House urged the Kremlin to support a unified opposition and the removal of Milosevic by the end of the year should the elections be stolen or should Milosevic launch an attack on Montenegro.  While Russia helped push Milosevic out at the end, gaining Moscow’s support was a challenge after NATO’s recent intervention without explicit authorization from the Security Council.

At the beginning of September, with the opposition unified and polling showing decreasing popular support for Milosevic, the Administration shifted emphasis from discrediting Milosevic to creating the conditions for his removal. It took cues from the Serbian opposition immediately following the elections and kept the Europeans in the forefront to showcase the broad-based nature of international opposition to Milosevic’s rule. It also agreed to encourage Moscow to support the opposition publicly, which it did not, and tell Milosevic to go privately, which it possibly did. Both candidates for the ongoing U.S. Presidential campaign signaled support for Milosevic’s removal to avoid any perception by Milosevic or among his supporters that he could “wait out” the Clinton Administration.

Opposition leaders and student activists deserve the bulk of the credit for ousting Milosevic. However, their courage and determination might have been for naught without the international effort, lead by the United States, to level the playing field and create conditions for their success.

Keys to Success

Milosevic’s decision to step down was his own. No longer alive, and a liar when he was, we will never know what motivated his decision and the successful outcome. Nevertheless, the keys to success likely included:

  • 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.

Ambassador Gregory L. Schulte recently joined the faculty of the National War College in Washington, DC. He served on the staff of the National Security Council during the overthrow of Milosevic. This essay reflects his personal views and not those of the National Defense University or the U.S. government.