Abdullah Arnaut-Albani looks into the lessons that the Syrian opposition can learn from the Kosovan Liberation Army’s defeat of Serbian forces in the 1990s.
The war drums beat in Damascus as news comes in that the fragmented and highly contentious Syrian opposition has sent a delegation, headed by Amar Abdulhamid, to Kosovo’s capital Prishtina this week, seeking advice from former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas-turned-politicians about how to proceed with their own insurgency. This should come as no surprise to those who have knowledge of the Kosovo war the late 1990s. The KLA fought one of the most successful — if not the most successful — guerilla wars of the twentieth-century, managing to go from an obscure group of a few dozen in the 1990s to a fully-fledged guerilla force driving out Serb forces by June 1999. This was only possible by uniting a highly skeptical Kosovo public and the rich diaspora communities. Most importantly, the KLA made an acute reading of the geo-political environment at the time and successfully persuaded the US and NATO to launch a punishing 78-day aerial assault on Yugoslavia. But how did they manage, in a space of only one year of intense fighting, to topple a Serb regime with one of the largest armies in Europe?
According to the author of a book on the KLA insurgency, Henry Peritt (‘The KLA: The Inside Story of an Insurgency’) the KLA fought a new type of armed combat that focused not on defeating the enemies’ forces, but rather, on the goal of eliminating the enemy leaders’ political will to continue fighting. Destroying enemy targets is used as a means of fighting for the ‘hearts and minds’ of those who support the insurgency — or within the foreign states that could make or break the insurgency. It is this latter aspect that the Syrian opposition is seemingly in Kosovo to learn about.
Yet what surprised most people at the time of the KLA insurgency was the pace in which they secured their strategic objectives. What worked in the KLA’s favor most was the international sensitivity to Milosevic’s crimes (think Bosnia, Srebrenica, where 8000 Bosniak Muslims were slaughtered in the space of a few days). The failure to intervene in Bosnia at the right time resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the separation of the country into three ethnic-enclaves. However, harrowing images of people being buried alive, women being raped and beaten while men are forced to prostrate to images of Assad is not drawing the type of international intervention the Syrians would hope for.
So what can the Syrian opposition learn from the KLA to rid themselves from the Assad regime?
Firstly, the KLA’s success was only possible when considering the events in Bosnia. It is there, in Bosnia, wherein the Syrian opposition should instead be looking for answers. Let me explain this logic for the sake of clarity: The same stalling-tactics Milosevic used against the international community — signing agreements, false promises, ceasefires, allowing UN observers inside — were used to implement his designs of an ethnically cleansed Bosnia that involved the indiscriminate murder of thousands. The same tactics are now, almost twenty years later, being used by the Assad regime. International monitors were sent into Bosnia, as in Syria now, but with no mandate to protect civilians. Meanwhile, then — as now — the killings continue, all under the gaze of toothless UN monitors. The Syrian opposition should be mindful of such stalling tactics when they are articulating their response at international forums.
Secondly, the Syrian opposition should realize that in Kosovo, Russia and some Greek volunteers only marginally supported the Serbian regime, whereas in Syria, Iran is a ubiquitous force bent on keeping its influence at any cost, as too are the Russians. This is not to mention a rather confused and disjointed, but still potent support to Assad coming from the Chinese. Hence the prospect of getting international support for an intervention is much harder, neigh on impossible in this case. Turkey and the Arab states represent a more likely avenue for support.
Lastly, and most importantly, the Syrian opposition needs to learn that the KLA was only successful when the opposition abroad was unified around one strategic goal: independence from Serbia. For a long time the KLA’s development was stalled by bickering between rival factions. Only when the opposition became united did the struggle for independence produce tangible results (such as larger money transfers from the diaspora and an international community that took it seriously). Moreover, only when the Albanians in Kosovo began to show a unified stance and the KLA was able to take and hold territory inside Kosovo did they become successful.
As a concluding remark, the Syrian opposition should realize that victory comes only from Allah, and the more sincere they are in their endeavors, the quicker this victory will come.
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