After months of dithering, NATO finally gets tough with Bosnia’s Serb rebels
TURNING THE TIDE
After months of dithering, NATO finally gets tough with Bosnia’s Serb rebels
Some of the most sophisticated military hardware of the 20th century roared over the onetime medieval kingdom of Bosnia last week, in a NATO attempt to bring peace to the tragic land by bombing it from the air. “The clips pretty much speak for themselves,” said U.S. Maj.-Gen. Mike Short as he introduced a series of black-and-white video images taken from the cockpits of attacking fighter jets. A building centred in one gunner’s cross hairs is incinerated. In another scene, a mushroom of smoke and debris rises to obscure what NATO officers claim is a Bosnian Serb underground command centre. “If anybody doubts that we have the capability, and the resolve to use that capability, I would refer them to some of these films,” said U.S. Admiral Leighton Smith, commander of NATO’s southern European forces, which carried out the attack.
At last, the question of whether western powers were willing to unleash their fire power on a warring party in the Balkan wars has been answered. The days of posturing and threats may well be over. British Defence Secretary Michael Portillo’s wishful notion of “saving lives without taking lives” was drop-kicked into history’s dustbin, along with the rest of what has passed for European policy on the Balkans. In place of European tiptoeing was a massive NATO air at-
tack—in which the American military did most of the work. One plane after another took off from air bases in Italy and from the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, electronically sniffing out and bombing Bosnian Serb air defences, as well as artillery and ammunition dumps. More than 500 missions were completed in three days of strikes before NATO announced a pause for diplomacy. By then, two French pilots were missing near Pale, headquarters of the Bosnian Serb rebels. Five European Union monitors who were feared dead were confirmed to be alive, although in the hands of Bosnian Serbs.
The air strikes were met more with harsh words than force. Bosnian Serb representatives trundled out the predictable cry of “genocide”—but their major military advantage was the bad weather, which limited the NATO pilots’ visibility. Under cloud cover, Bosnian Serb forces moved to hide some of their undamaged heavy weapons that ring Sarajevo and the remaining UN “safe areas” of Gorazde and Tuzla. But the British, French and Dutch troops who make up the recently installed 10,000-member Rapid Reaction Force were in position to return any Bosnian Serb fire around Sarajevo with their own 155-mm guns. For a time, at least, the Serb shelling of civilians ceased.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the air campaign’s success was how quickly the Bosnian Serb commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, voiced a willingness to come to the negotiating table. Throughout
their 41-month-long mission in Bosnia, UN officials have frequently had to beg to meet with Mladic or Radovan Karadzic, head of the selfstyled Bosnian Serb republic, merely to seek permission for the safe passage of humanitarian aid convoys—requests that were often refused. Sometimes, the most senior UN officials were fired upon as they travelled to meetings. This time it was Mladic who, after three days of bombing, requested an audience with his UN counterparts. “It is time to talk about peace, even after this dreadful bombing,” Mladic told Bosnian Serb television viewers.
But neither Mladic nor Karadzic, both of whom are wanted by an international war crimes tribunal, will lead a peace delegation to talks that resume this week in Geneva. That mantle was wrested from the Bosnian Serbs last week by Slobodan Milosevic, president of neighboring Serbia. Milosevic, self-styled architect of a Greater Serbia and a backer of the Bosnian Serbs, has recently given every indication of wanting to end the war—and the economic grief that the resulting sanctions have wrought upon his country. Not that anyone believes
negotiations will be easy. Drafting a new Balkan political arrangement may involve territorial concessions in a place rife with conflicting claims and new grievances on top of old ones. The Bosnian government has already vowed never to surrender the Gorazde enclave, even though it remains an isolated pocket inside Serbian-held territory. But U.S. negotiators so far have managed to hold most local ambitions in check. And in the wake of the air assault, the Bosnian Serbs seemed prepared to negotiate without their usual mix of preconditions and bravado.
Having unshackled its air might, NATO stopped short of a full-scale military solution to Bosnia’s nightmare. The use of force was meant only to halt the fighting and start the talking. “No one should seek military benefit from our action,” said NATO Secretary General Willy Claes, in a clear warning to Bosnian and Croatian forces not to use the air cover to launch their own offensives. NATO’s objectives remained limited: an end to the siege of Sarajevo,
. safety for civilians in the remaining Bosnian government enclaves, and a new start to regional peace talks.
But the radical turn of events posed the question of why the outside world had waited so long to use the air power option—and why now. The ostensible justification for the air strikes was the horrific shelling of the Sarajevo market on Aug. 28, which UN investigators blamed on Bosnian Serb gunners south of the city. Thirty-seven people died in the slaughter—the city’s bloodiest single attack in 18 months. NATO leaders, who had repeatedly pledged to protect Sarajevo’s civilians, could no longer ignore the Bosnian Serbs’ blatant defiance without further damage to the alliance’s battered credibility. “The objective is not simply to retaliate for the barbaric attack on Sarajevo, but to send a very strong deterrent signal to the Bosnian Serbs that this time around the international community means business,” said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea.
NATO leaders, who backed away from so many previous confrontations, calculated that only a massive response would be enough to overcome Bosnian Serb contempt for such well-worn pledges. In the past, Serbian rebels have taken UN peacekeepers hostage when threatened with NATO bombing. UN commanders spent the summer pulling troops out of exposed areas to avoid a repeat of last May’s humiliating hostage incident. By the time NATO bombs fell last week there were few blue helmets available for the Bosnian Serbs to brandish. Further-
more, NATO commanders no longer had to seek approval for an attack from the UN’s civilian officials, who blocked strikes in the past to preserve their fig leaf of impartiality.
Still, domestic American politics may have been the most important factor in the new Balkan calculation. Although President Bill Clinton has been under fire for his handling of the Bosnian crisis, his administration had largely been content to criticize European peace proposals as too generous to the Serbs. As NATO’s credibility continued to erode, Washington gradually became more engaged. The final push came when Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Clinton’s main rival for the 1996 presidency, pushed through a Congressional resolution calling for an end to the arms embargo on Bosnia. That resolution was likely to take effect by mid-September, and would have almost certainly led to a UN pullout, forcing Clinton to honor his pledge to put 25,000 American ground troops into Bosnia to cover the retreat. “"Phis initiative has been driven by American domestic pressures,” said one western diplomat in Europe. “The Americans were apoplectic about the prospect of sending in ground troops and about the approaching Dole deadline.”
The Americans have now clearly pushed the Europeans aside on the Bosnian crisis. Last year, they brokered a plan to link the Bosnians and Croats in a confederation and military alliance, which paid dividends when Croats drove the Serbs from huge swaths of occupied territories this summer. And last week, with four years of stutter-step diploma-
cy in tatters, America’s allies—including Canada—finally endorsed the air-strike option they had always ridiculed as ineffective and dangerous. The only open criticism of the bombings came from Russian President Boris Yeltsin. And that may just have been to placate a former Eastern Bloc ally. Western diplomats said the Russian representative at peace talks last week in Paris had already agreed on a military reply to the Sarajevo massacre. “But this has become such an American show that it would not have mattered one iota if the Russians had objected,” said one European diplomat.
Anxious to end the siege of Sarajevo, the Europeans and the United Nations conceded the turf to Washington’s leadership. “The Americans are on the right track,” acknowledged Dennis Snider, Canada’s chargé d’affaires in Belgrade. “But experience has taught us that one has to be extremely careful in dealing with all three parties.”
In fact, Washington’s boldness brought hope where so recently there had been only despair. Forty-six years after the NATO alliance was founded to defend Europe against the Soviet Red Army, it finally used its might. But the post-Cold War target was a brutal militia and its leaders, who until last week showed contempt for international law. The calm after the fighter plane storm may prove to be only a momentary lull. But it may also spell an end to the days when Sarajevans risked being murdered whenever they shopped for fruit.
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