NATO air attacks on defiant Serbs could worsen the Bosnian nightmare
THE MADNESS OF WAR
NATO air attacks on defiant Serbs could worsen the Bosnian nightmare
Here is how the Bosnian Serbs responded to the cacophony of bluster and confusion emanating from international capitals early last week: they violated a ceasefire around the UN-designated “safe haven” of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia within minutes of its signing; they shelled a hospital, a refugee centre and an apartment building, killing and wounding dozens of the city’s 65,000 defenceless Muslim civilians; and they alternately detained and released UN peacekeepers across Bosnia, like a malevolent cat toying with so many mice. World leaders talked tough and yet the Bosnian Serbs just laughed and went about their bloody business of carving up a sovereign state along ethnic lines.
Clearly outraged by the Serbian defiance, at week’s end the NATO allies issued an ultimatum: stop the siege of Gorazde or face immediate air strikes. They gave the Bosnian Serbs until 8:01 p.m. on Saturday to pull their forces back from the enclave. Later, they extended the ultimatum, threatening the Serbs with bombing runs unless they withdrew heavy guns from 20 km around Gorazde by April 27. The 16-nation alliance also threatened retaliation for any Serbian attacks on the five other UN “safe havens” in Bosnia, cities or towns whose populations are swollen with Muslim refugees. Canada, which has 800 peacekeepers in Bosnia, dropped its opposition to NATO air strikes after the United States agreed the United Nations would have a veto on any NATO actions. Said Defence Minister David Collenette: “We think the Bosnian Serbs have to really think twice before they thumb their noses at the rest of the world.” The threats appeared to work. Within hours, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, announced that they would comply with the NATO demands.
Up to that point, the watching world, Canada included, had been largely impotent in the face of the determined Serbs who sit in the hills outside so-called safe havens like Gorazde and rain mortar fire on cowering Muslim refugees. Ever since the former Yugoslavia erupted in con-
flict in 1991, foreign governments have been unable to agree on how to stop the killing, or even whether they should try. When they did act, the results were often questionable. Three times in April, the West had carried through on a threat to unleash air power against the Bosnian Serbs if they did not stop their attacks. The tactic failed miserably. Serbian troops outside Gorazde shot down one NATO jet and shrugged off the ineffectual strikes.
Last week’s crisis showed just how poorly the world has read the Bosnian Serb position. In March, the Western allies boasted that the threat of air strikes had silenced the Serbs’ heavy weapons around Sarajevo. But the Serbs rekindled the war on March 30, claiming their forces were being attacked by Muslim troops trying to recapture territory around Gorazde.
No one can say with authority whether the Muslims pro-
voked the Serbian attack on Gorazde. But the Bosnian Serbs are unquestionably bent on claiming more territory, and are not about to let internationally brokered ceasefires interfere with their expansion—at least, not yet. Bosnian Serb leaders have bluntly expressed their desire to expand the Posavina Corridor, a narrow band of Serbian-held land in northern Bosnia that links Serbian-conquered territories to Serbia proper. And although the Serbs control about 70 per cent of Bosnia’s territory, there are still pockets they covet. Gorazde, whose large Muslim population in the heart of Serbian territory acts as a kind of red flag to a bull, was clearly one. On March 30, the Serbs moved their tanks within range of the enclave and began their bombardment.
The initial UN response was poorly calculated. UN officials had established a chain of command that allowed Lt.-Gen. Michael Rose, the Briton who commands UN forces in Bosnia, to request protective air strikes from NATO planes if his forces were threatened. On April 10 and 11, Rose did just that, ordering in NATO fighters in the face of Serbian shelling. The two sorties reportedly found their targets, but did nothing to stop the onslaught on Gorazde. Another air strike on April 16 turned into disaster when a British pilot, searching through heavy cloud cover for a Serbian tank outside Gorazde, was struck by anti-aircraft fire and bailed out of his Harrier jet. The pilot ejected safely and was returned to his unit.
The United Nations then hastily negotiated a ceasefire, which the Serbs flatly ignored. This time, the West’s jets remained grounded while NATO leaders considered a request by
UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to widen their mission. Boutros-Ghali and U.S. President Bill Clinton wanted NATO planes to be able to repulse any Serbian attack on a safe haven, whether or not UN personnel were in danger. One risk associated with that approach is the potential reaction from Moscow: the Russian government, although frustrated by the Bosnian Serbs’ refusal to halt the fighting, is on record as opposing further Western-led air attacks. The prospect of a standoff between NATO and Russia and the danger of a wider war in the Balkans is “everybody’s big nightmare,” said a British government spokesman.
Before they agreed on last week’s ultimatum, Western leaders engaged in a maelstrom of finger-pointing and posturing. British politicians blamed Washington for its continued refusal to send ground troops to Bosnia. “Because your government does not have troops on the ground, its suggestions on what course to follow are not very well received,” said one British government spokesman, briefing American journalists. Prime Minister John Major’s government reluctantly agreed to support the call for wider air strikes. But the prevailing sentiment within British isolationist circles is simply to withdraw and let Bosnians get on with their ethnic partitioning. “No one is prepared to move into participation in a war in which they can see no end,” said Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.
American politicians attacked Britain’s reluctance to take strong action on a European problem, but were no less cynical in their proposed solution. Since London opposes air strikes, Senator Joseph Biden told a British
television reporter, the international community should lift its arms embargo against the mainly Muslim Bosnian government. “At least let the poor bastards defend themselves,” said Biden. Clinton pointedly reminded the Europeans that they had scuppered his plans a year ago to arm the Bosnian government and let each side fight it out fairly.
History will not be kind to any of the players. Yugoslavia is fast becoming the graveyard of hopes—now regarded as wildly naïve—that the post-Cold War world would be a safer place. In the uniform of the United Nations, a Global Cop was going to walk the world beat, preserving international borders and protecting minorities within them. It worked once, when a massive international coalition under the UN flag drove Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army out of Kuwait in 1991— although even that victory has been tarnished by reports of recent human-rights abuses by the Kuwaiti authorities. But since then, the United Nations has failed in its policing role, first in Somalia, where peacekeepers were unable to subdue marauding clans, and more recently in Rwanda, where UN troops have watched helplessly as an ethnic slaughter raged. As they fled Rwanda, Belgian troops burned their blue UN peacekeeping berets in frustration. “I am disgusted to have been with the United Nations,” said one Belgian peacekeeper.
Ultimately, the United Nations and NATO seem unsure of the nature of the enemy they confront in the Bosnian Serbs. Their military commander, Gen. Mladic, is a strutting, bragging nationalist motivated by a desire to cleanse all traces of ‘Turk” or Muslim life from what he sees as Serbian territory. “For the Serbs, this war is a question of to be or not to be,” said Martin Van Creveld, a military historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Attacking them risks increasing their resistance, creating the impression that everybody is against them.”
More and more, said Van Creveld, the old state-versus-state conflicts are giving way to more insidious causes of war: bored young men or violent mercenaries who rally around ethnic banners and see battles as a way of life or social climbing. War offers comradeship and its own economic benefits, making political solutions harder to broker. That description may fit some of the Bosnian Serb soldiers and leaders, who were accused last week by Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin, nominally an ally, of having “fallen ill with the madness of war.” Said Van Creveld: “This explains why the Serbs are prepared to defy the world. It is a type of warfare the West is totally unable to cope with, nor has the slightest idea of how to resolve.” It is also something that world leaders might pause to consider before they apply more of their conventional military prescriptions to the Bosnian nightmare.
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