Syria and Bosnia: A Series (Intro)


Some experts are just now starting to compare the magnitude of bloodshed in Syria for a little over two years now with that of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992-1995. But the comparison is almost always surface-level, mostly confined to commenting on the conflicts’ characteristic ethnic divisions and criticizing the equal lack of international involvement in both cases. But Syria and Bosnia share other traits that are fundamentally important for understanding the conflicts themselves and for addressing how the international community responds to crises like them—and, thanks to this writer’s penchant for the Balkans, in this series, Notes on the Periphery (NotP) aims to bring to light these very comparisons between the conflicts more than a decade and a half apart.

But first, some background on the Bosnian War. To give a rather gross oversimplification, the fall of Yugoslavia in 1991 was spurred by Slovenia and then Croatia seceding, leading Serbia—the most institutionally whole entity of the lot equipped with a modern army, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA)—to lead an effort to salvage Yugoslavia at all costs. As is widely known now, Serbia’s means included widespread ethnic violence against Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. Although it is argued that the Bosniaks and Croats first retaliated in self-defense, the conflict—largely labelled a civil war for years by the international community—grew into a nasty ethnic war on all sides: Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats all targeted each other with varying levels of success depending on their institutional capacities and orders from above. The war waged on for more than three years, mostly in Bosnia’s territory, though often encroaching on Croatia, until NATO intervened and the famous Dayton Peace Accords were agreed upon in December 1995. (If you want even more background and are feeling particularly ambitious, check out my senior thesis, found here for a limited time.) 

The above is the simplest account of the so-called Bosnian war that took the lives of a controversial amount of Balkan natives. Much still exists that is not popularly addressed, and future posts in this blog series will give a snapshot of those issues in an effort to enlighten our contemporary experience with Syria.


In keeping with the mainly Balkan focus of this post, however, and because Bosnia today is indeed much more “periphery” than Syria, the rest of this post will be devoted to outlining the main takeaways from the newest International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Bosnia.

The report details the rise of political Islam in Bosnia—a country that is arguably still recovering from the early 1990s war that ravaged its land and its people. After the Dayton Accords, Bosnia became the center of international attention: its political and social institutions had to be essentially built (not really “rebuilt,” seeing as Bosnia had little-to-no formal institutions before the war) from scratch. International public figures (mostly Americans like Richard Holbrooke) took on the challenge of designing the best power-sharing political system for a nascent country deeply divided along ethnic (i.e., Bosnian Serb, Bosnian Croat, and Bosniak) lines. But the legacies of the system put into place as part of post-conflict recovery and reconstruction are still being seen today in political stagnation and ethnic-party proliferation, as ICG astutely notes.

But so as not to bore NotP’s readership (because, I’ll be honest, I could talk about this all night), here are the main takeaways from the report and why you should care:

  • Nationalist politics—namely Islamic nationalism—in Bosnia depends highly on cult of personalities, strong personas like Alija Izetbegovic during the war and Nezim ef. Halilović and grand mufti Cerić today (pages 6 and 15).
  • Bosnian vs. Bosnian Muslims vs. Bosniak is a special and important distinction (page 6). “Bosnian” connotes any citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina, regardless of ethnic identification. “Bosnian Muslim” refers specifically to Muslims who live within Bosnia  whereas “Bosniak” is a boundary-less reference to the whole community of Muslims who identify as Bosnian, regardless of location. This distinction is crucial, as ICG reports, to the scope of Islamic political parties in Bosnia: which community should they purport to represent or work for?
  • Along these lines, self-perceived and self-reported identities are crucially consequential to the political reality of Bosnia. ICG discusses how should a change in wording as small as between “Bosnian,” “Bosnian Muslim,” or “Bosniak” take place in the national census among the Bosnian Muslim population throughout the Federation, the ethnic balance could tilt, having far-reaching effects on entity creation, differentiation, or dismantling (page 12).
  • ICG seems optimistic that Bosnia is likely not more than a “transit or recuperation area” for terrorists, although there does exist a small faction of Islamic extremism in Bosnia and the country’s political troubles could shape it into a future hotbed for terrorist groups (page 19).
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1 Response to Syria and Bosnia: A Series (Intro)

  1. Pingback: Syria/Bosnia, Part II: Islamic Fighters | Notes on the Periphery

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