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Is Syria Anything Like Kosovo?

As President Obama considers military strikes against Syria -- and how to square them with international law -- his advisors are reportedly looking at the 1999 NATO air war in Kosovo as a precedent.

There's only one minor problem: The Kosovo war was nothing like the Syrian conflict.

According to the New York Times, White House aides are now studying the Kosovo campaign to determine whether the strategies used then to circumvent the U.N. Security Council -- and particularly Russia, a veto-wielding member -- might be applicable today, as the United States once again weighs military intervention in a bloody struggle overseas.

But the Kosovo analogy is riddled with pitfalls for the United States -- especially in terms of Obama's desire to prevent the deployment of ground troops.

On its face, the chain of events in Kosovo appears alluringly similar to those in Syria. The two stories even come with respective villains: Slobodan Milosevic and Bashar al-Assad. During the late 1990s, Milosevic's Serbs stood accused of systematic crimes against humanity -- including massacres and forced displacement -- perpetrated against Kosovo's Albanians. Now, Assad's security forces are alleged to have used chemical weapons against a stronghold belonging to the rebels, most of whom are Sunnis. Then, as now, Western powers observed the violence, condemned it wholesale, and dithered while it escalated. A Western desire to do something -- though exactly what is unclear -- runs through both cases.

But from there, the Kosovo campaign begins to diverge from today's talk of intervention in Syria. First, the intervention in Kosovo was far more ambitious than anything likely to be launched in Syria. NATO entered the conflict with five primary objectives: the end of combat and killings in Kosovo; Serb military withdrawal from the region; the deployment of peacekeepers; the return of refugees and humanitarian aid; and a political framework for Kosovo based on a previous agreement aimed at greater autonomy for the province. In Syria, the administration has gone to great lengths to emphasize the limited nature of potential military strikes -- stressing that there will be no "boots on the ground" and that any action is strictly in retaliation for chemical weapons use. In Kosovo, by contrast, NATO launched a campaign that essentially aimed to release Kosovo from the grip of the Serbs.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry presented the White House's case for a military strike in Syria, which appeared to rest firmly on the desire to halt the use of chemical weapons -- and not much else. But shortly after Kerry's remarks, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney went behind the White House podium to explain "that ultimately Assad has to step aside to allow for a better future for the Syrian people." Once strikes begin in Syria, the desire to implement the broader political goal of Assad's removal -- so long stymied by Russia's diplomatic maneuvering -- may prove irresistible. Here, the Kosovo example will only lead the United States down the road of another costly, lengthy military commitment.

The dynamics that might produce such an outcome have already materialized. With limited military options on the table, Washington's foreign policy mandarins are forcefully making the case for why a small-scale intervention will fail to produce the outcome the United States seeks. "Limited military involvement isn't going to produce an outcome," Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon told Politico, referring to the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Expect a lot more of that once the CNN live-feed of explosions in Damascus goes on air.

Today, NATO's campaign in Kosovo is remembered as an air war that crushed Milosevic's resolve through precision weapons and military smarts, but that interpretation overlooks the crucial fact that the threat of a bona fide invasion played a key role in bringing Milosevic to the negotiating table. NATO thought that the Kosovo intervention would be short and that the Serbs would quickly crumble, but Serbia showed remarkable resilience in the face of intense NATO bombing. It took 78 days of sustained bombing to cow Milosevic into talks. But those talks only occurred after skirmishes with the Kosovo Liberation Army forced their opponents to operate in the open, which allowed NATO's air forces to inflict heavy losses on the Serbs. At the same time, NATO gave permission to U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark to widen Albanian roads leading to Kosovo -- a move that sent Milosevic a clear message: NATO was preparing a ground invasion.

While the bombing played a key role in defeating the Serbs, NATO failed to win the Kosovo War through air power alone. The intervention resulted in a ground deployment under which Kosovo became more or less a U.N. protectorate. The peacekeeping force is known as KFOR -- short for Kosovo Force -- and it remains there to this day. Tasked with maintaining the fragile peace between Serbia and Kosovo, the force numbers some 5,500 troops and includes a contingent of 800 American soldiers. It's a reality the White House's war planners should keep in mind, especially given the fact that a Syrian military intervention remains deeply unpopular in the United States.

As the White House considers not so much whether it will strike Syria but how, Kosovo's appeal as a precedent for Obama and his advisors is clear. Credited with saving lives even if it increased violence in the short term, the Kosovo War is remembered as a noble intervention -- a time when the West acted on its principles and tried to prevent mass violence. It's a sentiment the Obama administration has echoed in recent days, as when Kerry spoke of the "moral obscenity" of Assad's chemical weapons use.

But if Obama wants to deliver on those principles -- as NATO at least partially did in Kosovo -- he may end up having to do a lot more than fire some missiles.

CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/GettyImages

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Syrian Hacker Collective Knocks Out the New York Times

With the United States moving closer to military strikes in Syria, the Syrian Electronic Army, a pro-Assad hacking collective, isn't content on the sidelines. On Tuesday, the group appeared to hit the New York Times' website and managed to redirect some visitors to SEA-owned servers.

For most Times readers, the outage, which began at about 3 p.m. and looks to be ongoing, came in the form of a fairly standard error message. But some users experienced something more sinister:

The SEA appears to have attacked the domain name system -- the method by which IP addresses are matched to the names of websites -- and used it to divert visitors away from the Times' servers and onto an SEA domain. The Times has acknowledged that it believes the outage is the result of "a malicious external attack" but has so far not said who it believes was behind the attack.

The SEA has not formally claimed responsibility for the hack, though its Twitter feed is full of gloating about the outage. And so far, all the evidence indicates that the Assad-affiliated collective was behind the attack. Matt Johansen, a researcher at WhiteHat Security, posted a photo of the Times' DNS registry, which seems to point to an SEA operation:

The SEA is also claiming to have hacked Twitter's domain, but it remains unclear whether the DNS registry has in fact been altered or whether it is just a cosmetic change. Twitter is reportedly investigating the claim.

But the group may not be done. The SEA claimed on Twitter that it has also gained control over the Huffington Post and Twitter's UK domains.

The SEA now has an impressive rap sheet of media organizations that it has successfully attacked. Besides the Times, the SEA has hit the Washington Post, NPR, the BBC, and even the Onion. The group at one point hijacked the Associated Press Twitter feed to spread the false news that there had been two explosions at the White House and that President Obama had been injured.

While the group's most publicized attacks have focused on spreading mayhem at international media outlets, the SEA has also targeted Facebook pages in Syria aimed at disseminating information about the civil war. That effort appeared to be part of a crude information dominance campaign as the Syrian Army attempted to retake rebel-held territory.

On the subject of information dominance, with the Times website down, the Wall Street Journal has apparently spotted a business opportunity, and is offering free access:

 

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