The Kosovo Airstrikes Precedent: A ‘One-Size-Fits-All’?

by Katerina Karakatsanis


The recent airstrikes debate in the British Commons involved historical examples ranging from Iraq to Srebrenica. The example of Kosovo as a ‘blue-print’ has been raised by many different governments including the United States.[i] This piece is going to examine the legitimacy of using Kosovo as an example within this debate. Kosovo has a special meaning for Western interventionists: for many it is seen as a success story. It’s a tale of the Western saviour coming to the rescue of Kosovo Albanians who were being brutally murdered by the Yugoslav forces. This understanding is simplistic, and we shall now explore why Syria is not Kosovo.

First of all, the divisions in Kosovo were much clearer than in Syria. Besides a struggle between peace and violence as a method for independence, Kosovar Albanian society was mostly united in desiring the same end goal. On the other side, NATO had one goal- to get rid of Milošević. Even within Serbia, events like the Bulldozer Revolution highlight the President’s rising unpopularity within parts of society. Amidst Western outcry after media reports of tragic events such as the Račak massacre , in March 1999 NATO began a bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia that lasted until June 1999. This intervention by NATO, without analysing the morality or legitimacy, is thus a unique situation and airstrikes cannot become a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution because of it. The different causes that external countries and various people/organisations are fighting for in Syria are much more complex, making intervention a murkier area. In such a complicated environment such as Syria, making the debate simply Saviour vs. Terrorist Sympathiser[ii] is not conducive to any real strategic planning.

The real tragedy is that most of British society wants the same thing: an end to the Syrian war and for no attack like the recent one in Paris to take place again. In London, no major event has taken place so far but many are not questioning IF it will happen but WHEN and WHERE. In a fearful environment our human reaction is to do something to prevent this paranoia. However, unless a desire arises among policymakers of how to psychologically, politically and religiously understand our enemies, and how to use increased intelligence capabilities in a more efficient way, extremist organisations remain a problem that our children will be dealing with for years to come. Deciding not to use airstrikes is not, as Noah Sin argues, the same thing as ‘inaction’.[iii] Further, Sin is right, inaction will not save lost Iraqi lives, but at the same time action will not save Rwandan and Bosnian lives either. As Kaldour and Turkmani note in OpenDemocracy, “We should not reply to terror with terror unless we have very good arguments.” Further, they question what effect airstrikes in Syria will have when we know that many of the perpetrators of these attacks come from Western cities such as Brussels.[iv] Will airstrikes effectively address the problem or is it too late? Resentment of NATO airstrikes is still alive in Serbia. NATO airstrikes also accidentally killed Kosovar Albanians, Serbian civilians and mistakenly blew up the Chinese embassy. As the numbers of civilian casualties is highly debated, let us look at Balkan Insight’s numbers for damages caused in Serbia: “It is estimated that the bombing damaged 25,000 houses and apartment buildings and destroyed 470 kilometres of roads and 600 kilometres of railway.”[v]

Even more troubling, the NATO and US intervention, although undoubtedly saving Kosovar Albanian lives, also led to a backlash against Serbs in Kosovo.  These are highly contested unresolved issues in Kosovo and Serbia today- exemplified in a small way by the recent tear gas in the Kosovo Parliament and subsequent arrest of opposition leaders.[vi] As a result, we should be aiming to find ways to not repeat the mistakes of the past, instead of trying to re-create what will surely be even worse consequences.

But what about the refugees? 

There is also another odd argument the example of Kosovo is being used to justify. Labour’s Margaret Beckett highlighted in the debate on the 2nd of December as part of her speech supporting air strikes in Syria that:

if there had been no bombing in Kosovo, perhaps a million Albanian Muslim refugees would have been seeking refuge in Europe”.

Ms. Beckett was obviously playing up to recent fears of large numbers of refugees trying to reach Britain. Unfortunately, more research on this topic could have told her that this is not the best example. First of all, Albanian Muslim refugees ARE trying to leave Kosovo even today (they are already in Europe, contrary to Ms. Beckett’s understanding of geography). Already in June 2015, Kosovo’s Interior Ministry, announced that 7,500 Kosovars had been returned to Kosovo after they attempted to join the recent wave of Syrian refugees. The reason why this is important is because Kosovo has almost become an idealistic example of Western interventionism in the minds of many. The Western press largely left Kosovo in the 1999s and have remembered it with a rosy tint. Instead, Western countries who were involved in the intervention should have more of a responsibility to actively keep up with developments in Kosovo. They should not simply use the example to justify their own ideas and this lack of appreciation for the consequences of intervention will almost inevitably occur in Syria.

In addition, many argue that airstrikes led to increased refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in Kosovo, both Serbian and Albanian. According the Report of the High Commissioner for Refugees, 1999, in June 1999, 3 months after NATO airstrikes began, a record number of almost 200,000 sought asylum in the one month alone.[vii]  However, lets focus on the lives that Western intervention did save.  Unquestionably, despite casualties that also occurred, they did help many who may have been brutally killed without protection. But why is this all down to airstrikes? There were boots-on-the-ground in Kosovo and eventually a peacekeeping mission set up. The Kumanovo Agreement was signed which led to Yugoslav forces being withdrawn from Kosovo. As Labour MP, Jo Cox notes, “airstrikes are a tactic not a strategy[viii]. So then what is the plan? How is the West going to ensure ISIS forces withdraw? How is the West going to ensure that ISIS does not morph into another jihadist organisation down the line?

Idealising the past, focusing on guilt, and most importantly, using Kosovo as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ precedent are not valid reasons for supporting airstrikes in Syria. Instead of accusing each other of being terrorist sympathisers or war-mongers, we should be having a societal discussion on humanitarian intervention, boots-on-the-ground, extremism and airstrikes by intelligently using examples of the past in order to create new policy.



Cited Articles


[i]Air War in Kosovo Seen as Precedent in Possible Response to Syria Chemical Attack”
[ii] David Cameron accuses Jeremy Corbyn of being ‘terrorist sympathiser’”
[iii] Think you’re on the moral high ground by opposing air strikes in Syria? Sorry but you couldn’t be more wrong
[iv]Why we should oppose British air strikes against ISIL in Syria”
[v] Death Toll From NATO Yugoslavia Bombing Still Unknown
[vi]Stop Tear-Gas Protests, US Tells Kosovo Opposition”
[vii] Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1999 p. 14
[viii] With Regret, I Feel I Have No Other Option But to Abstain on Syria”


(all photos are the author’s own)


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