The Trump administration wasted little time in quelling fears of American isolationism last week when it announced its support for the creation of safe zones in Syria. Immediately (and predictably), the Russian government expressed concerns, which should also do much to quell rumblings that President Trump is some kind of Russian puppet. This bold initiative is a likely indicator of the administration’s approach to the Middle East generally, and is apparently predicated on some assumptions not shared by many in the foreign policy establishment.

The first apparent assumption is that Syria, like Iraq, is not a cohesive state, let alone a nation-state. The conflicts in both countries are rooted in the reality of sectarian division, which has contributed to protracted violence. Americans take pluralistic societies for granted, overlooking the fact that Western societies generally have at least shared conceptions of the common good. This has too often blinded policymakers to the political implications of deep, intractable sectarian divisions. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the alienation of Iraq’s Sunni population by the Shia-dominated central government, which contributed directly to the rise of ISIS in the Anbar and Nineveh provinces. Another example is the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has committed terrible crimes against Syria’s Sunnis. The notion that the Tehran-dominated governments of Damascus or Baghdad could enjoy the support of their Sunni populations any time in the foreseeable future is implausible. So how can the sectarian conflict be brought to a conclusion? The only workable model is decentralization.

Last September, Chris Seiple, Robert Nicholson, and I wrote in The American Interest:

Federated, decentralized models of governance will be necessary to restore stability to Iraq and Syria, as well, most likely, to Libya and possibly Yemen. Safe havens, autonomous regions, and buffer zones will also necessarily be formed to protect vulnerable populations and redevelop communities devastated by conflict. This kind of approach offers a third way to communities—particularly Sunni communities—too often forced to choose between hostile, Tehran-[controlled] militias and governments in Baghdad and Damascus and violent extremist organizations like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The central governments of Iraq and Syria each control perhaps a third of the geographic territory of the states they actually claim. Both have significant Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations: In Syria the former are perhaps just over half the population; in Iraq the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is largely autonomous. These are but two realities in terribly complicated countries that are decentralized in practice if not in fact. Greater local control by Sunnis of predominantly Sunni regions of Iraq would have likely have precluded ISIS’s expansion in 2014—a kind of Sunni Awakening of a preventive, rather than reactive, nature.

The need for decentralized governance in Iraq was anticipated more than ten years ago by Leslie Gelb and Senator Joe Biden. They even provided a working model for Iraq: The 1996 NATO-UN intervention to end the genocidal violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There, safe havens had been established, but were undermined by the reluctance of the UN to permit its peacekeepers to use force. In consequence, safe havens actually contributed to the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims, most poignantly at Srebrenica in 1995. It was the Srebrenica massacre that prompted U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke to force the hands of many leaders (including President Bill Clinton) to intervene and end the conflict. Srebrenica also taught the multinational Implementation Force in Bosnia to upgrade its mission—implementing the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords—from “peacekeeping” to “peace-enforcing.” This proved significant. Not only was there no repeat of Srebrenica, the peace in Bosnia has held for more than two decades. It is, quite simply, the most successful intervention model of the last generation.

To be clear, each case—Bosnia, Syria, and Iraq—is sui generis, with its own distinct challenges. However, the commonalities are numerous. Each state came into existence after being carved out of larger political constructs. Bosnia-Herzegovina was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later the multi-ethnic, multi-religious fiction of Yugoslavia. Iraq and Syria were carved out of the Ottoman Empire, roughly along the lines set forth in the (now rightly infamous) Sikes-Picot Treaty. The sectarian divides simmering beneath the surface were suppressed for a time by rigid, highly-centralized authoritarian regimes that sought—through Communism and Baathism, respectively—to unify through secular ideology but proved themselves to be oppressive and ultimately incapable of governing. The organizing rationale of the centralized, totalitarian regimes was overcome by ethno-religious sectarian identities and interests; the faux states carved out of empires themselves dissolved. The sectarian conflict in each subsequently claimed the lives of a quarter-million people or more.

Only Bosnia has succeeded in realizing decentralization and stability. It is a model that policymakers have only reluctantly begun to examine. In 2013, I argued that the late Richard Holbrooke’s vision to end the conflict in Bosnia was a model for Syria. Calls for an intervention in Syria and Iraq of the kind that took place two decades ago in Southeastern Europe have been met with various responses. Some have argued that Bosnia was a failure because (two decades hence), pluralism hasn’t taken root in Bosnia; others haven’t been able to get beyond ad hominem attacks directed at Holbrooke, so despised was the man by his peers and underlings. Yet he foresaw that the humanitarian intervention in Bosnia would also serve long-term national security interests: Mujahedeen, many trained in Afghanistan, were active combatants in Bosnia. Holbrooke understood that protracted sectarian conflict provided a training ground for terrorists. The Obama administration, in contrast, did nothing to end the Syrian conflict, thereby permitting the flourishing of ISIS and Al Qaeda’s affiliates as well as the ruthless prosecution of war by Bashar Assad against insurgents and even Syria’s civilian population.

The best argument against a Dayton-type model for Syria (and Iraq) is that it would require U.S. leadership and therefore boots on the ground. It is this question that will confront the Trump administration: To what extent will U.S. advisors and troops be required to oversee the creation of safe zones in Syria? This is the task for policymakers at State and the Pentagon in the weeks ahead. It is to the Dayton Accords and the multinational intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996—not Lebanon in 1983 or Iraq in 2003 or Libya in 2011—that these policymakers should look. It is almost certain that the risks for U.S. troops would be greater than in Bosnia. However, the long-term benefits of taking a crucial first step toward concluding the civil war in Syria outweigh the cost of a limited U.S. commitment there.

It may be that the creation of safe zones in Syria will not come into existence; that conflict will continue in Syria for years to come; that no decentralized models of governance will be implemented in Syria; and that Syria will be a haven for terrorists rather than vulnerable civilians. It is also possible that Iraq’s Sunnis will remain alienated from a Shia-dominated central government while smaller ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Christians and Yazidis of the Nineveh Plain, will remain a low priority for both the Iraqi and U.S. governments. But there is a model available for humanitarian intervention—the Dayton model for Bosnia—and this model has been successful in promoting peace and stability where sectarian conflict had all but destroyed a government’s capacity to govern its people. Decentralization was the answer there. It is the answer in Syria and Iraq. The alternatives are, of course, well known. Afghanistan and Somalia come to mind. Most of Syria and Iraq are little better today as it is.

It is often said of late that the American people are weary of the burdens of global leadership. This is not accurate. Calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany, Japan, Korea, or even Bosnia or Kosovo have been infrequent and few. It is the Middle East that has exasperated the American people. But this is because U.S. policies were advanced with a blindness to the fact that the region is beset with premodern, often tribal identities that supersede any sense of state or nation. The remedy proposed—procedural democracy—was naïve, imprudent, and resulted in much bloodshed. The Trump administration appears to apprehend the limits of procedural democracy in states divided by sectarian interests. Thus rooted in reality, the possibilities for advancing national security and humanitarian interests—and the two are in fact related—may be a cause for cautious optimism. It begins with calls for decentralized governance in Syria and further decentralization in Iraq.

It is still very early, but it is nonetheless encouraging to see the Trump administration take a step toward restoring a balance of principle and prudence to U.S. foreign policy. In the days and weeks ahead, the administration would do well to articulate the relationship between the creation of zones and U.S. national security interests, explaining both the risks and the reward to the American people. It will do much to restore confidence in America’s restored leadership in the world, rather than disengagement.

Andrew Doran writes about U.S. foreign policy and human rights in the Middle East. He is on the board of directors for In Defense of Christians, an advocacy group for Christians in the Middle East. He previously served on the executive secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at
the U.S. Department of State.

* Some edits have been made since the original posting for correction and clarification

Photo Credit: A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets in Syria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Released)