Can Bosnia Resist?

Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995

Attila Hoare

THREE FACTORS ARE staving off a Serbian defeat in the Bosnian war. The international arms embargo has prevented the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina (ARBiH) from acquiring the offensive fire power needed to win. Radovan Karadzic’s forces possess around ten times the tanks and five times the artillery of the ARBiH; this is itself only a fraction of the equipment of Serbia proper.

The imbalance could be reduced, were it not for the ambivalent attitude of President Tudman’s Croatia towards Bosnian military victory. Zagreb has been evading the arms embargo while blocking the acquisition of heavy weapons by the ARBiH. Zagreb-backed Croat leaders in the Bosnian-Federation government have announced their support for the offensive to free Sarajevo, but actual participation has involved only limited artillery cover for Bosnian troops.

The Bosnians’ third handicap, from which the others stem, is the hostility shown them by Western governments and UN leaders determined to collaborate with both Belgrade and Pale. There was scarcely a protest at the Serbian seizure of heavy weapons from collection sites around Sarajevo and of the UN’s own weapons, including forty-five UN armored vehicles now being used against the Bosnians. Karadzic’s forces have recently been given charge of aid convoys into cities, including Sarajevo and Zepa, that they themselves are shelling!

Serbian President Milosevic has been rewarded for his supposed “isolation” of his Bosnian-Serb proxies with an extended suspension of international sanctions. This is following his recent installation of a Russian-supplied air defense system in occupied Bosnia, his dispatch of thousands of fresh troops to the front and his provision of buses to transport Muslin civilians out of Srebrenica.

The Western powers, including the United States, applied great diplomatic pressure to halt the offensive to free Sarajevo, and to prevent Croatia cooperating fully with Bosnia. Britain’s Foreign Secretary readily accepted Serbia’s latest conquests, announced that Srebrenica could not be recovered, and that Zepa could not be defended either.

The French government blamed the Bosnians for failing to defeat Srebrenica, although it was France’s UN commander Philippe Morillon who disarmed the ARBiH there in April 1993. Serbian forces around Srebrenica disguised themselves as UN soldiers to lure Muslim refugees to their deaths in a chilling caricature of the UN’s role in this war. Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey has in this context called on the United Nations to withdraw.

Perspective: A Long War

Non-existent when the Bosnia war broke out in 1992, the ARBiH is now advancing in most parts of the country against an enemy once ranked among the strongest in Europe.

The offensive to break the siege of Sarajevo followed three months of successes, most notably the capture of the key communications town at Mt. Vlasic in central Bosnia in March and of much of the Ozren and Treskavica mountain ranges to the north and south of Sarajevo.

Early May saw Bosnia’s allies in the Croatian Army (HV) crush the Serbian forces occupying Western Slavonia. Repeated attempts to avenge this defeat and broaden the “corridor” linking Serbian conquests in the east and northwest of Bosnia, through the capture of the Bosnian-Croat enclave of Orasje, have been repulsed with heavy losses.

The Bosnian successes are the work of an army of 210,000 disciplined and motivated soldiers, forged under the shadow of threatened national extermination, aided somewhat by 50,000 HVO soldiers supported by an increasingly well-organized and equipped Croatian Army.

Facing them are 80,000 soldiers of Karadzic’s “Republika Srpska,” their morale and discipline very poor after three years of terrorizing and plundering civilians amidst conditions of complete social breakdown, and with no end to the war in sight. This thinly stretched force guards a territory perhaps twice the extent of its enemies, but with well under half the population and very few economic assets.

Serbia provides reinforcements: 5,000 troops and sixty tanks were sent in June to join the force of 20,000 already attacking Bosnia’s northwestern Bihac territory from the Krajina region of occupied Croatia. Yet the manpower shortage is so chronic that Belgrade is labelling Bosnian Serb refugees in Serbia and even Serbian citizens who were born or lived in Bosnia as “deserters,” and press-ganging them into Karadzic’s army.

In mid-June Serb soldiers sabotaged one of their own tanks to avoid being sent to their deaths on the Orajc front–this may be a sign of things to come.

In Sarajevo 144 civilians were killed during the month of June. In Bihac, totally isolated, deaths have occurred from starvation. The question is whether a slow Bosnian military victory can be halted through civilian terror and the diplomacy of the Western powers.

The respective military weaknesses of the two sides will ensure that this war is protracted and bloody. Vukovar (in Croatia) and Grozny (in Chechaya) revealed the difficulty of conquering cities; the Bosnian war revolves around the capture of mountains, roads and communications towers.

The ARBiH is chipping away at overextended Serbian lines all over the country. It is attempting to cut off and isolate sections of the Serbian ring around Sarajevo to the northwest and to the south. With very brave but underarmed soldiers facing concrete bunkers and tremendous fire power, Bosnian losses have been heavy and gains relatively modest.

Karadzic’s army possesses considerable striking power but it is overextended. To push back the ARBiH around Bihac last November meant abandoning the town of Kupres; to defend the Majevica mountain range near the northeastern town of Tuzla in March meant Bosnian gains around Bihac. Now the concentration of Serbian forces around Sarajevo has allowed the ARBiH to capture much of Majevica and advance on the Serbian logistics center at Doboj. The aggressor is responding to this dilemma by tightening its blockade and increasing its bombardment of Bosnian towns.

The seizure of Srebrenica and assault on Zepa, two “UN-safe areas,” are moves aimed at shortening the frontline and providing a cheap morale boost for the demoralized Serbian forces. Serbian sources themselves suggest 4,000 captured men from Srebrenica have been executed; thousands more were killed or went missing when Serbian soldiers attacked columns of refugees fleeing the town. Such moves are aimed at reducing the Bosnians’ advantage in manpower; genocide is a means as well as an end.

ATC 58, September-October 1995