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In Syrian Conference, Former Diplomat Hears Echoes Of The Balkans


For some people, the juxtaposition of a sectarian civil war unimpeded by intense diplomatic effort has a familiar ring and that ring recalls the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Yugoslavia had come undone. The patchwork of Serb, Croat and Muslim populations descended into a bloodletting.

Lord David Owen, the former British foreign secretary, was the European Union's negotiator for the Balkans and he joins us now from London. Welcome to the program once again.

LORD DAVID OWEN: Nice to be here.

SIEGEL: And when you've written recently about Syria, you've invoked the experience of Bosnia Herzegovina. Do you feel a resonance of Bosnia in the current diplomacy over Syria?

OWEN: Yeah, I think it's very like it was in September/October 1992, a complete mess. And it doesn't surprise me these negotiations have been very difficult to establish and will take time.

SIEGEL: In those days, some faulted you for advancing a peace plan which accepted the facts on the ground and it was said, by doing so, rewarded Serb aggression. How did diplomats solve this problem? How do you reconcile the desire to, say, keep the Syrian regime at the table, even though it's a regime that, we heard yesterday, tortured and murdered detainees by the thousands?

OWEN: It is very difficult. I mean, if you stay in judgment with them, if you start taking sides, of course, you'll be no use at all. So the main thing is to be extremely polite. But, I mean, we had to, as you say, withstand a great deal of criticisms from people who seemed to believe that you could a perfect solution from an wholly imperfect solution.

There will not be a resolution in Syria without some very messy compromises. Keeping the country together will, itself, be a triumph.

SIEGEL: Back in the early 1990s, you faulted Washington for encouraging the Bosnian Muslims with false hopes that lead them to fight on. You said they were dreaming. Are the Saudis, the Turks, the Qataris, are they now falsely encouraging Syrian rebels to fight beyond a point that makes any sense?

OWEN: I don't think you can pack up fighting unfortunately at this stage. You have to stand your ground. What I think you should try to do is get local cease fires and if you like, some form of humanitarian relief coming through. All this time, you're trying to form structures which can give people a measure of security and, to some extent, decentralized power. And then on top of it, you're trying to construct an overarching organization for the whole country.

SIEGEL: In 1994 and 1995, NATO used air power against the Bosnian Serbs and by the end of '95, the Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian war. One reading of that is that all of the steps achieved by incremental diplomacy that you've described really didn't end the fighting. What ended it was a concerted use of force that told the Bosnian Serbs their days were numbered.

Do you accept, ultimately, that in the case of Bosnia, what ended the war was the use of military force from outside?

OWEN: Oh, absolutely. I argued for force. I wanted to enforce the Vance-Owen Peace Plan, as it was called in May 1993. And had we done so, we'd have brought the war to an end two years earlier with far less ethnic cleansing and incidentally with more territory given to the Muslims than eventually came to them through Dayton.

SIEGEL: I want you to score what happened today as - in Montreux, as you experience it. On the one hand, a conference has lead to an agreement by the Syrian regime and at least the Syrian rebels' political leadership to engage in talks for several days. On the other hand, each side has made demands of the other that are absolute nonstarters. Is that a great success to get them in the room or do we simply now institutionalize the war and give legitimacy to each side?

OWEN: I don't think it's a great success, but I think it's a success. And I think it's a sign that when Russia and America start to work together, then there starts to be a possibility of progress in Syria. The problem we had is for nearly three years, the Security Council failed to work. There was no dialogue at all. And China and Russia felt, with some justice, that we had stolen the march on them over Libya. They acquiesced by abstaining on the Libyan resolution. And then they felt that we used the no-fly zone for regime change. I don't think that the Americans, French and British handled this badly. I do think they handled the aftermath of not trying to have a dialogue with Russia about their concerns and, to some extent, China.

SIEGEL: David Owen, Lord Owen, thank you very much for talking with us today.

OWEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: David Lord Owen was the European Union's negotiator for Bosnia back in the 1990s. Before that, he was British foreign secretary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.