Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1995, Pages 7, 8, 70, 92

“Leave and Lift” or “Life and Strike”?

In Bosnia, Muslim Units Ready to Replace Reluctant British, French

By Richard H. Curtiss

"Once it marginalized human rights considerations, the ideals of the U.N. charter and the claims of justice, in the name of bringing the hostilities to an end on any terms, the U.N.'s failure was pre-ordained. The failure was evident on the ground in Bosnia almost from the beginning. But it was, until Bihac, called success."

—David Rieff, Washington Post, Dec. 11, 1994.

"Our fearless leader...is busy reversing himself on Bosnia. I count at least six distinct positions he's held on Bosnia already, but perhaps I've missed a few."

—Columnist Richard Grenier, Washington Times, Dec. 7, 1994.

In the last week of November, fearing a repeat of the Nov. 21 NATO airstrike against the Serb-held Udbina airstrip in Croatia, from which Serb pilots had been attacking "U.N.-protected" Bihac, Bosnian Serbs seized three U.N. officers—a Jordanian, a Bangladeshi and a Czech—in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka. They bound the three peacekeepers hand and foot, laid them out on the runway of the Banja Luka airport, and parked their white-painted vehicles nearby so that potential aerial attackers could not fail to understand who the uniformed hostages were. They were left on the runway for eight hours, and the performance was subsequently repeated. When they were not on the runway, the hostages were locked into their quarters and denied food for 24 hours at a time.

The treatment aggravated a previous heart condition of 39-year-old Jordanian Maj. Zaid Hussein Fayed. When he could no longer walk, a Banja Luka physician recommended he be evacuated to save his life. His captors said they would release Major Fayed if the U.N. sent in a new officer to take his place as a hostage.

A Spanish captain arrived in Banja Luka on Dec. 6 to be a substitute hostage, accompanied by a Czech major who was to evacuate the stricken Jordanian. The Serbs seized the Spaniard and the Czech, but then refused to let Major Fayed be evacuated, increasing the total of hostages held at the airfield from three to five.

While the Banja Luka betrayal was taking place, 1,300 Bangladeshi soldiers, still in the summer uniforms in which they arrived, were under siege in the Bihac pocket and being denied food and fuel in their unheated quarters. One already had died of a bronchial asthma attack. In Gorazde, a U.N. patrol was subjected to a three-hour Serb attack with weapons that included an anti-aircraft machine gun.

Still at the same time, Serbs took 20 Canadian soldiers who had been guarding weapons collection sites near Sarajevo at gunpoint to a jail where they were denied regular food, and kept the remaining 35 members of the Canadian unit under "house arrest" in their camp with the threat of a mortar barrage if they emerged. Similarly, 260 French, Russian and Ukrainian soldiers manning nine other heavy weapons collection zones in Serb-held territory around Sarajevo and 29 unarmed military observers there were put under guard at the sites or in their barracks.

Also on Dec. 6th, all 32 supply convoys scheduled that day for U.N. troops and civilians in "safe areas" under U.N. protection were denied permission to move.

Incidents in other areas included the severe beating near Bosnian Serb headquarters at Pale of two British soldiers and the sexual manhandling of two British female soldiers by Serbs, who stole the weapons of all four; and the Serb seizure and detention of 62 British and 102 Dutch troops taking supplies in or being rotated out of U.N.-protected areas in eastern and central Bosnia. At that point the airlift of relief supplies into Sarajevo had been halted for nearly three weeks because of the threat posed by installation of a SAM-6 ground-to-air missile battery installed in Serb-held territory overlooking the airport but outside the heavy weapons exclusion zone.

The new wave of hostage-taking had been preceded on Nov. 23 by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's threat of "all-out war" if U.N. forces interfered with the attack by Bosnian and Croatian Serbs on the U.N.-protected area of Bihac, and Karadzic's refusal on Nov. 30 to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who presumably had come to Bosnia to deliver a reprimand.

Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, commander of U.N. Protective Forces (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia, had been dismissive of the insult to his boss. "The problem is [the Serbs] have got their tails up in the air militarily," Rose said. "They're just trying to make some silly political point." Rose had no comment when Serbs subsequently barred him from visiting his own troops in Bihac.

However, the events involving the Bangladeshi and Jordanian peacekeepers, and the installation of Russian-made SAM-6 batteries that now cover 40 percent of Bosnian airspace and have been delivered in clear violation of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's August embargo on arms, ammunition and fuel for the Bosnian Serbs, could not be dismissed so easily.

"One has to look at the overall picture and recognize there are major problems of delivering aid," said British Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind, commenting on the Dec. 6 events during a visit to U.N. headquarters in Zagreb. "If that continues, it would render UNPROFOR's task impossible."

At a meeting of European foreign ministers in Budapest, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé was more forthright. "UNPROFOR is at the end of its tether," he said.

The French foreign minister's statement, however, was part of a threat to withdraw French and British peacekeepers and seemed directed more as a reprimand to Republican leaders of the incoming U.S. Congress than at the Serbs or at U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had instructed Secretary of State Warren Christopher to capitulate to the British and French refusal to use force to salvage the failed peacekeeping mission.

In fact, however, the "lift and strike" position forcefully advocated by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) is essentially the same Bosnian policy espoused during his 1992 election campaign by candidate Bill Clinton and that Clinton's secretary of state, Warren Christopher, took in May 1993 to European leaders, who rejected it. However, the British and French policy of not using force, even when necessary to feed or protect Bosnian victims of Serb aggression, now clearly has failed. Nor do Serb offers to exchange old U.N. hostages for new ones, and to renegotiate the "contact group" peace plan, alter that fact.

Dole's alternative policy is to help the U.N. peacekeepers to leave if they choose to do so, and then lift the arms embargo that in practice is keeping only the Muslim-led Bosnian government from obtaining heavy weapons. He would use NATO or U.S. bombers to strike Serbian forces as hard as necessary to discourage them from trying to seize all of Bosnia while the U.S. arms and trains the 120,000 Bosnian government forces. These forces outnumber the 80,000 Serbian troops in Bosnia, and the Bosnians can look to the 60,000 Croatian Defense Council forces in Bosnia for additional help.

Gingrich, after the Republican election sweep, was even more graphic during a Dec. 4 television appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press." The U.S., he said, should send Gen. Colin L. Powell, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, "to visit Belgrade and to visit the Bosnian Serb leadership and to say to them: 'If you launch a general offensive, we would reserve the right to use air power against every position you have, against every command-and-control center, against every position everywhere. We would reserve the right to take you apart, and we would do it in three to five days, and we would paralyze your capacity to function as a society. And we're telling you to just back off and accept an armed truce.' And I would do it all with air power, but I would do it like Desert Storm. I would not engage in this nonsensical, you shoot one missile on us, we'll drop one bomb."

Predictably, Christopher, having capitulated to the British-French position only days before Dole and Gingrich made their statements, warned that U.S. bombing might lead to "putting in ground troops." But the Republican position remains essentially what candidate Clinton and incoming Secretary of State Christopher themselves had advocated previously.

From the beginning, the French and British reaction to U.S. criticism has been that only countries with troops on the ground are entitled to set policy. To suggestions that bombing might focus Serb attention on the benefits of accepting the British-French-German-Russian-U.S. "contact group" peace plan that awards the Serbs (31 percent of Bosnia's population) 49 percent of the land, and the Croats (17 percent of the population) and Muslims (44 percent of the population) together 51 percent of the land, the British, French and Canadian response has been to threaten to withdraw their forces from the U.N. peacekeeping contingent.

When it became clear that in the U.S. the Republicans, at least, would welcome such withdrawals, and that in the Islamic world several countries are ready to replace the French, British and Canadian forces with peacekeeping troops of their own, both British and French leaders changed their tune. Who, they demanded to know, would be prepared to help with the winter evacuation of 23,000 U.N. troops from Bosnia, which might be even more dangerous than leaving the U.N. forces in place.

To their added discomfiture, the normally indecisive Clinton reached a decision as rapidly as had his Republican rivals—a decision backed up by senators from both parties. The U.S., Clinton said, would provide half of the troops required for an evacuation under fire, meaning the U.S. would commit between 5,000 and 25,000 fully equipped American ground troopsin addition to the U.S. air cover already standing by.

It was too much for America's changeable European "allies." The international community has "a moral duty" to press on with the peacekeeping mission, Lt. Gen. Michael Rose solemnly intoned. Then journalists in Paris and London suddenly learned "authoritatively" on Dec. 9 that no withdrawal was contemplated before spring, and that even then a withdrawal would take five to six months to carry out.

In fact, Turkish Foreign Minister Murat Karayem said on Dec. 7 that Muslim countries are ready to provide troops and equipment to replace any UNPROFOR units that leave Bosnia. Already in contact with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic is a new "Islamic contact group" consisting of Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Turkey. Also, some or all of the Muslim units already in Bosnia probably would remain.

Besides the 1,235 Bangladeshis and 100 Jordanians already in Bosnia (with another 3,267 Jordanian peacekeepers elsewhere in former Yugoslavia), these include 3,016 Pakistanis, 1,462 Turks, 1,544 Malaysians, and 426 Egyptians. Therefore Muslim troops on the ground already are roughly equal to combined British (3,390), French (3,646) and Canadian (863) forces.

Predictably, Britain and France have gone on record opposing introduction of such large numbers of Islamic troops. In the cases of Iraq and Iran, both of which have indicated interest in sending units, such objections may be valid.

Introduction of units from hard-line Islamist Iran would threaten to turn the war into a Christian-Muslim confrontation, which would suit the Serbs but not the multisectarian Bosnian government, which has Bosnian Croats and Serbs serving alongside the Muslim majority in both civilian and military positions. Iraqi troops, judging by the large numbers who defected to Saudi Arabia when the opportunity presented itself during the Gulf war, might create a refugee problem of their own.

However, British and French objections to the introduction into U.N. peacekeeping ranks of troops from other Muslim countries reveal a mindset that helps explain the apparent moral indifference of leaders of both countries since the Bosnian fighting began in April 1992.

When NATO was created in the early 1950s, Europeans joked that its purpose was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." In the 1960s, however, French President Charles deGaulle withdrew French forces from the NATO military alliance, forcing it to move its headquarters from Paris to Brussels. The French withdrawal also forced NATO to plan a defense of Europe from Soviet invasion that excluded France, putting a heavy burden on U.S. air support that would have had to operate from bases in Spain.

Although French forces again are at the disposal of NATO in such operations as air support over Bosnia, France consistently sets its own exclusive rules. During the Gulf war, Desert Storm commanders were warned that neither French air nor ground forces would violate Iraqi frontiers. However, when they found themselves shut out of the action in a campaign being fought over Iraq, not Kuwait, French political leaders reversed their own edict.

At present, French policy again seems focused on building bilateral relationships outside the NATO alliance with both the British and the Russians to "keep the Germans down." As they see prospective new members of both NATO and the European Union naturally gravitating toward Germany, however, French policy-makers seem even more fixated on getting the United States out of Europe to prevent any "special relationship" between the U.S. and Germany from developing within NATO. Exacerbating differences with the U.S. over Bosnia seems a heaven-sent opportunity for the French to pursue their goal of replacing the U.S.-led NATO with a Europe-only defense structure.

British policy is less comprehensible. Were Margaret Thatcher still prime minister instead of her successor, John Major, Britain almost certainly would have joined the U.S. in dealing with the Bosnian problem in 1992 or 1993, using whatever force was required. This would have been possible because, despite latent anti-Islamic feelings in both France and Britain, public opinion generally condemned Serb aggression.

An Intensive Campaign

However, an intensive information campaign by the French government, and possibly by Britain as well, now has whipped up nationalistic feelings. British and French leaders seem to view the fighting in Bosnia as a rerun of World War I, when the Serbs were their allies against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (personified in Bosnia by the Croats), and Turkey (personified by the Bosnian Muslims). Such revisiting of the ethnic divides that have sundered Europe for centuries, and led earlier in this century to the two bloodiest and most destructive wars in human history, seems to have blinded the British, French and some other European leaders both to the moral outrages being committed in Bosnia, and the long-term consequences of their policy failure there.

France and Britain have preferred to describe the August 1991 Serb attacks on Slovenia and Croatia and then the April 1992 Serb attack on Bosnia as episodes of a "civil war" within former Yugoslavia. This obviated choosing sides, and if it resulted in the creation of a "greater Serbia" in much of former Yugoslavia, that would create one more bulwark against a potential German resurgence.

In fact, however, the U.S. has been committed to another course since it followed Germany's lead in recognizing Slovenia and Croatia, the first two republics to break away from Yugoslavia, and then Bosnia, following a majority vote of its residents. This made the Serb attack on Bosnia, a U.N. member, legally as well as morally an act of over-the-border aggression. The U.N. charter prohibition against the acquisition of territory by war, as well as Article 51 of the U.N. charter recognizing the inherent right of any member to self-defense, both are applicable. They give Bosnia the right to arm itself to resist aggression and the U.S. the right to help it do so without any further U.N. action.

Aside from the legal case for collective action to restore the borders of Bosnia, there is an equally strong moral case. By this time, between 200,000 and 250,000 of Bosnia's 1991 population of 4.4 million are dead or missing and presumed dead. Among the dead and missing are 17,000 children. Another 34,500 children have been wounded. Some 2.1 million Bosnians, almost half the population, have been displaced.

Of these victims of all kinds, the overwhelming majority are Muslims. The self-styled Serb campaign of "ethnic cleansing" has in fact been a carefully calculated campaign of genocide, involving not only mass killings of Muslim men of military age, but also the systematic terrorization of an entire civilian population through murder and rape on a scale unknown in Europe since World War II. Commentators have called it the third case of mass genocide (after the Armenian massacres and the Holocaust) in Europe in this century.

The moral case for reversing these acts is overwhelming, both as an act of simple justice and to prevent other ethnic majorities in Eastern Europe and the borderlands of the former Soviet Union from seeking to emulate the Serbs. Further, although the Serbs respond that atrocities have been committed by all sides, this is true only in the narrowest legalistic sense.

There have been killings of civilians and of prisoners by Croats, but on a scale not even remotely comparable to the atrocities by the Serbs. It is arguable whether there have been more than a handful of such acts by the Muslims. In any case, even alleged victims of Muslim atrocities seem not to exceed 200, as compared to perhaps 200,000 Muslims murdered.

A recent Los Angeles Times poll revealed that only 13 percent of Americans say they have been following events in Bosnia closely. Those that have, however, are horrified. This explains why Dole says he and Gingrich can count on the backing of 80 senators for the policies they advocate, and why Clinton, if he eventually returns to his original "lift and strike" policy, could count on similar backing.

If the informed, and therefore outraged, public still is a minority in the United States, that is not the case among the world's one billion Muslims. From the beginning they have followed closely the atrocities being committed against their co-religionists in Bosnia. They have also charged, correctly, that Milosevic's "embargo" on the Bosnian Serbs is a fraud.

Ammunition, SAM missiles, and fuel are flowing from Serbia via Montenegro and Serb-occupied Croatia to the Bosnian Serbs. Recently, an American photographer, Ron Jacques, and a French photographer, Luc Delehaye, were detained, handcuffed, hooded and beaten for two days when they tried to cross from Serb-occupied Croatia into the Bihac pocket. They were able to identify their tormentors as a Belgrade-based unit under the command of Zelj Raznatovic, a Serb gangster and recent candidate for the Serbian parliament known as "Arkan." This demonstrates that military units from Serbia still are participating in the Bosnian and Croatian fighting.

Because the U.N. command is reluctant to acknowledge publicly any of these facts, since that would necessitate corrective action, Muslims world-wide are outraged. They are more united on this issue than on any other, including even the fate of the Palestinians. In fact, Muslims see the dispossessed Bosnian Muslims as another Palestinian diaspora in the making, and are determined this time not to stand by idly and let it happen.

That is why there is no shortage of Muslim units for U.N. peacekeeping duty, and no shortage of petroleum-rich Arab states willing to work with the United States to provide the heavy weapons and military training necessary to enable the Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves. It is an issue upon which the Muslim countries have been right, European leaders have been wrong, and upon which it behooves the U.S. government to stop its ambiguous policies and follow its original instincts.

One place to start would be with the promised U.S. help in evacuation of U.N. peacekeeping troops who opt to leave Bosnia. On this subject, foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland provided excellent advice in the Dec. 11 Washington Post:

"Sending U.S. troops into the Balkans for this limited purpose must be treated as an act of war—with the Serbs as our identified enemy...America must use a withdrawal strategy that will minimize the Muslim deaths and military losses a U.N. pullout would bring...To expedite the withdrawal and provide the Muslims with more protection, the departing European troops should leave their tanks and other equipment in Bosnian-held territory. This is the carrot for the Muslims to let the United Nations leave peacefully...The U.S. strategic bombing campaign that hawks have long wanted becomes a real threat in these circumstances. Belgrade and its Bosnian Serb allies have to be put on explicit notice that interference with an American-assisted withdrawal will trigger the obliteration of all Serbian military assets by the U.S. Air Force with infrastructure targets held in reserve if the Serbs continue attacks on the retreating international force...If flattening Belgrade is what it takes to get Serbian acquiescence to a withdrawal that increases the Muslim war-fighting ability, flattening Belgrade would be justified in this context. Slobodan Milosevic needs to be told that, credibly, now."


Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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