Bosnia’s Triumph
and Western Treachery

— Attila Hoare

IN LATE 1944, a bloody battle was waged over a small town in the mountains of northern Dalmatia.

Defending the town was the German 264th Division, backed up by a combined force of Croats and Serbs. The Croats were Ustashe, nominal rulers of the whole of Croatia; but the Ustashe had never established their control over this particular town. The Serbs were Chetniks; this town had been their stronghold since the start of the War in 1941.

The attackers triumphed after eight days of fighting and enormous losses. They were Partisans of the VIII Dalmatian Corps of the “National Liberation Army of Croatia;” the name of the town was Knin.

It was Knin which in the 1990s became the ‘capital’ of the “Serb Republic of Krajina,” established by the Serbian-dominated “Yugoslav Peoples Army” (JNA) in occupied Croatia.

The battle for Knin was part of the Yugoslav Civil War of 1941–45, when Tito’s Partisans triumphed over the Serbian Chetniks, representatives of the royalist Yugoslavia that had existed before 1941.

The Partisans were strongest in Croatia and Bosnia; they included both Croats and Muslims fighting for self- determination and an end to Serbian hegemony, and Serbs fighting to end Ustasha persecution and recreate Yugoslavia. The Chetniks were strongest in Serbia; when the Partisans liberated Serbia in the summer and autumn of 1944, the Chetniks went over to them in large numbers.

Yugoslavia’s Contradictory Legacy

The Socialist Yugoslavia established in 1945 reflected the contradictory aspirations of the Partisans: It was a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces, including a Republic of Croatia and a Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, each with the nominal right to self-determination; but the new federal Yugoslav army and bureaucracy remained ultimately dominated by Serbia.

As Yugoslavia went through a Communist-led industrial revolution in the post-war period, this army and bureaucracy became increasingly burdensome both economically and politically to the non-Serbian republics, particularly Croatia and Slovenia.

These republics pressed, largely successfully, for greater control over their own resources and greater political independence, so that by Tito’s death in 1980 Yugoslavia had been transformed into a federation of states that were each three-quarters independent.

When Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia in 1987 and began working to reestablish Serbian hegemony over Yugoslavia, Croatia, Bosnia and other republics took the final steps towards independence. The response from Serbia was war.

Until a year ago, the balance sheet of Communism’s legacy in Yugoslavia appeared to be negative. Croatian and Bosnian Republics were established, their economies industrialized and thriving multi-ethnic communities created. But a JNA had also been created, paid for largely with wealth generated by Croatian industry and tourism. That Serb-commanded army had dismembered these republics, devastated their economies and ripped apart their multi-ethnic communities.

None of the fruits of Communism seemed to compensate for the colossal destruction inflicted on Bosnia, in particular, by this ugly offspring of the Communist system. But events over the past year must modify the historian’s verdict, for resistance to the Serbian onslaught was also carried out precisely through the framework of the Republican states established in 1945.

In other words, while the Communist-led Partisan movement gave birth to a “Yugoslav Peoples Army” which in 1991 launched a genocidal war against its own people, the same movement also gave birth to Bosnian and Croatian Republics capable of resisting this assault.

The Shrinking of Greater Serbia

By the autumn of 1994 this resistance was beginning to inflict some painful blows on the oppressor, the first signs of a possible victory. In August and September 1995, the blows became an avalanche.

In a lightning offensive named “Operation Storm,” the Croatian Army defeated the army of the “Serb Republic of Krajina” [part of Croatia held by Serbian military forces since 1991 – ed.], ending the occupation of central Croatia as well as the encirclement of Bosnia’s northwest Bihac region. With its rear now secure, Bihac’s 20,000-strong V Corps then moved south and east against the demoralized army of Radovan Karadzic’s “Republika Srpska.”

In mid-September, following the first serious military action taken by NATO against Serb forces since the start of the war, the Bosnian and Croatian allies won another great victory.

The reunification of Bosnia was brought one step closer: one-tenth of Bosnia’s territory was liberated; the Bihac region was territorially joined with Croat-controlled territory in Bosnia; and direct road-links were opened between the industrial centers of Tuzla and Zenica, and between Zenica and the sea.

Seven towns were recaptured, including Jajce, where Socialist Yugoslavia was proclaimed in November 1943, and Drvar, where the Germans almost succeeded in assassinating Tito in May 1944. The allies now appeared ready to march on Banja Luka, the chief city of Serbian-occupied Bosnia.

When the Croatian Army crossed the Una River to open a second front against the Serbian army, the latter appeared to be facing total defeat.

Such a defeat was not, however, acceptable to Western governments, including the Clinton Administration. Washington remained committed to the so-called “Contact Group Peace Plan,” which aims to partition Bosnia 51%–49% between the Bosnian Federation on the one hand and the Karadzic Serbs on the other.

The Plan was accepted in 1994 by the Bosnians but rejected by the Karadzic Serbs, who at the time still appeared to possess the military advantage. Now the Bosnians and Croatians seemed on the verge of reducing “Republika Srpska” beneath the 49% promised in the Plan, and of capturing its largest city; furthermore, they had liberated much majority-Serb territory that Western statesmen had not intended them to have.

Enormous diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on the allies to halt their offensive, demanded formally in a UN Security Council resolution. NATO neglected to enforce its no-fly zone, allowing the Karadzic Serbs to use their air force to redress the military balance.

British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind travelled to Coatia’s capital city Zagreb for a meeting with Croatian President Tudjman, after which the latter ordered a withdrawal of the Croatian Army from northwest Bosnia and the abandonment of the newly liberated town of Bosanski Novi.

Propping Up Milosevic-Karadzic NATO air-strikes facilitated the Bosnian and Croatian allied advance by disrupting the Serbian communications system, though the damage they inflicted was otherwise confined to eastern Bosnia [the area of the so-called “UN safe areas” overrun or threatened by the Serb forces – ed.], not in the west where the allied offensive took place.

Nevertheless, Western diplomacy has now stepped in to prop up the crumbling edifice of Greater Serbia. Such contradictions reflect the conflicting pressures that Washington has come under in recent months.

Until November 1994, Washington left the foremost role in Bosnia to the British and French, who adopted the twin-track approach of pressuring the Bosnians to surrender while ameliorating the most embarrassing cases of humanitarian suffering and Serbian terror against civilians.

Such policies reflected the traditional Anglo-French support for a strong Serbia, their dislike of Bosnia and Croatia as weak, rebel republics, and instinctive hostility to the spread of German influence in the Balkans, as manifested in German support for Croatian independence.

Thus Britain and France produced a series of “peace plans” which legitimized the Serbian possession of a successively greater slice of Bosnia, culminating in the 52% offered in the Owen-Stoltenberg Plan of September 1993; an arms embargo, imposed on all of former Yugoslavia at the request of Serbia itself in September 1992; and action to halt Bosnian and Croatian military offensives.

In August 1992 and January 1993, successful Croatian offensives against Serbian forces in the Bosnian Posavina valley and in Krajina were halted through Western diplomatic pressure, including threats of sanctions.

“We must do our utmost to try to stop that,” was what British UN-mediator David Owen said of the possibility of Croatian-Bosnian military cooperation; sure enough, it was Owen’s own “peace plan” which in 1993 had sparked war between Muslims and Croats, by promising the latter territorial gains at the expense of the former.

In October 1994, the UN intervened to halt a Bosnian attempt to weaken the siege of Sarajevo through the occupation of Mt Igman (strategically overlooking Sarajevo). Bosnian troops were threatened with air strikes, and were marched at gunpoint out of the Igman zone by French troops, who then used rocket launchers to destroy Bosnian Army bunkers.

The UN waged a propaganda war, accusing the Bosnian Government of shelling its own civilians to provoke Western retribution against the Serbs. Atrocities against Serbs, meanwhile, were exaggerated or even invented-as in April 1994, during the Serbian attack on the “safe area” of Gorazde, when British General Sir Michael Rose accused the Bosnians both of exaggerating their own casualty figures and of having ethnically cleansed 12,500 Serbs from Gorazde, even though Gorazde’s pre-war Serb-population had only been about 5,000.

In August 1995, UN mediator Carl Bildt, in a desperate attempt to halt the Croatian move into Krajina, threatened to prosecute Croatian President Tudjman for any war crimes that might be committed in the process.

The Pressures on Clinton

Unfortunately for Clinton, he was never able to join unreservedly in the efforts of his European allies to sell Bosnia down the river, as he would have wished. From Congress and from the State Department, pressure came for action in defence of Bosnia.

By autumn 1994 there was a danger that Congress would force a unilateral lifting of the arms embargo, greatly damaging relations with Britain and France, to whom the arms embargo was sacrosanct.

Clinton therefore tried, all at the same time, to side with the British and French against Congress; to defuse Congressional opposition to his policy with occasional noises against Serbian aggression; and above all, to remove the embarrassing war from American television screens.

The Administration hoped to do this by tipping the military balance against the Karadzic Serbs, enough to pressure them to sign the Contact Group Plan but not enough to encourage either Croatians or Bosnians to extend the conflict by pursuing a military victory.

This was a very thin tightrope to tread. In October 1994, a delegation of U.S. officers were sent to train the Bosnian and Croatian armies, which U.S. ambassador to Zagreb Peter Galbraith described as becoming “an effective force in dealing with ... the aggression sponsored by Belgrade.”

Such ideas were played down when in November Serbian forces from Krajina and occupied Bosnia seemed poised to capture the Bosnian “safe area” of Bihac, a crucial strategic threat to Croatia. Galbraith and his superiors worked successfully to prevent Croatia from intervening in Bihac’s defence, fearing this would “widen the conflict.”

The Clinton Administration took some token actions to help Bosnia, in order to defuse Congressional and Croatian pressure for stronger measures; Washington unilaterally withdrew from enforcement of the arms embargo and pressed for effective air-strikes in defense of Bihac.

Faced with determined opposition from the British and French, Clinton then backed down and fell into line behind them. Defence Secretary William Perry argued-incorrectly, as we have recently seen-that the “Serbs have occupied 70% [of Bosnia]. There’s no prospect, as I see it, of the Muslims winning it back.”

Good anti-imperialist that he is, Perry went on record as saying that air strikes “could not change the outcome or stop the killing,” but “would only expand the violence.” White House spokesman Mike McCurry found hope for peace precisely in the Karadzic Serbs’ military successes, since “they’ve got a situation in which as a result of the war they won the territory that you would expect them to want to win as a matter of geography;” consequently “there must be rationally some desire on the part of the Bosnian Serbs to negotiate.”

White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta washed his hands of Bosnia, whose government he now blamed along with Karadzic for prolonging the war: “Our only hope is that at some point the parties recognize that there’s no use continuing the kind of carnage that’s going on there at the present time.”

Croatia’s Counteroffensive

The Croatians then began to take matters into their own hands, perhaps in response to the failure of the Americans to honor their promises to defend Bihac. At the end of November 1994, the Croatian Army began a slow advance through southwestern Bosnia, easing the crushing Serbian pressure on Bihac.

The following July the Krajina Serbs, backed by reinforcements sent by Belgrade, attempted to secure their rear through an all-out offensive on Bihac, without provoking Western opposition.

Croatian President Tudjman and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic then signed a military agreement in Split. Following this the Croatian Army in southwest Bosnia captured the towns of Grahovo and Glamoc from the Karadzic Serbs, immediately followed by the liberation of Krajina and Bihac in early August.

During these months the Clinton Administration had continued to toe the European line. When Tudjman’s decision in January 1995 to expel the UN from Croatia threatened to reignite the war there, ambassador Galbraith warned the Croatians ominously that “this will create a very dangerous situation and if war does result, they’ll have to bear the blame.”

Under such pressure, Tudjman reversed his decision and allowed the UN to stay. In May, Washington condemned the Croatian liberation of Western Slavonia [another slice of Croatia occupied since the 1991–92 war – ed.] A UN resolution demanded that Croatia withdraw to its prior positions.

Washington also aimed at cultivating Serbia as an acceptable member of the international community, offering to lift sanctions against Belgrade in return for Serbian recognition of the borders of Croatia and Bosnia. But unlike the British and French, the Americans continued to favor a strong Croatia as a counterweight to Serbia, hoping a military balance would bring an end to the war.

Once it became clear that Croatia’s “Operation Storm” against Krajina would produce a rapid victory without spreading the conflict, Washington welcomed it as a step towards such a balance, in contrast to London’s furious condemnation of Croatian “ethnic cleansing.”

When Genocide Is Convenient

Privately, Clinton Administration officials also welcomed the Serbian seizure of the “safe areas” of Zepa and Srebrenica, which they saw, like the liberation of Krajina, as “tidying up the map” and clearing the path for a settlement.

Following this logic, they subsequently suggested the Bosnians hand over Gorazde to the Karadzic Serbs as well, in exchange for territory around Sarajevo, though this was dropped following strong Bosnian protests.

This cynical game of mapmaking became more desperate following the humiliating Serbian seizure of UN hostages, the occupation of Srebrenica and Zepa and the shameless massacre of thousands of Muslim civilians.

Congress now voted to lift the arms embargo with a wide enough margin to override a presidential veto. With election season approaching, Clinton moved to defuse Congressional opposition and put an end to the Bosnian electoral liability.

Following the Serbs’ defeat in Krajina, the Karadzic Serbs seemed on the verge of accepting the modified Contact Group Plan proposed by Washington. The emerging settlement was jeopardized when another gratuitous Serbian massacre of 38 civilians in Sarajevo prompted the Bosnian Government to threaten to walk out of the “peace” talks.

NATO planes then carried out the first serious military strikes against Serbian forces since the start of the war. It was hardly accidental that such action should take place only after the Croatian victory in Krajina had dashed all British and French hopes for a Serbian victory.

Immediately, the Karadzic regime stopped beating about the bush and accepted the Contact Group Plan. The Bosnians, meanwhile, were pressed into recognizing a “Serb entity” within Bosnia, covering forty-nine percent of the country’s territory, while the modified “peace plan” likewise reduced the Bosnian Federation to a “Muslim-Croat entity,” on a par with Karadzic’s parastate.

As Simon Jenkins, a prominent apologist for the British Government’s Bosnia policy, put it in The Times (London), “It is the Muslims, not the Serbs, who are being dragged to the negotiations by the show of force.”

Completing the Carveup?

With the NATO air campaign, Bob Dole’s Congressional campaign to lift the arms embargo dissipated. Richard Holbrooke and his friends have stitched together a settlement that gives Clinton his foreign policy triumph and Britain and France their strong Serbia in control of “only” forty-nine percent of Bosnia.

Their deal leaves the Bosnian Government in effective control of less than a third of its country and dependent on a Croatia whose troops are already preventing Muslim refugees from returning to their homes in newly liberated Jajce.

In the former Krajina, the determination of the Croatian regime to wipe out all remnants of Serb presence, through the grisly murder of hundreds of elderly Serb civilians, strikes yet another blow at the multi-ethnic principle – the principle upon which Bosnian society is based.

Yet the Bosnians can still wreck the Holbrooke settlement – for, as Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic has stated, “The maps and the way they are drawn are a consequence of certain political and diplomatic circumstances, but in essence what is important is what is being done on the ground.”

Generals Atif Dudakovic and Mehmed Alagic, the brilliant Bosnian commanders in the recent offensive, have vowed to converge on Banja Luka.

If they succeed, they will ruin the goal for which American, British and French diplomats have labored three years to achieve. If they fail, these diplomats will have helped to destroy the achievements of over fifty years of Bosnian history.

ATC 59, November–December 1995