Think the Bosnia Conflict Was a Civil War?
The conflict in Bosnia was more than a civil war.
Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia following a controversial referendum, and was recognized by the United States and Europe in April 1992 — and the United Nations a month later.
Violent clashes had begun prior to recognition, and would erupt into a terrible war which would divide the three dominant communities in the country – Muslims, Serbs and Croats – and claim the lives of more than 100,000 people, while displacing two million more.
The war baffled commentators and policymakers, many of whom justifiably knew little about the new state. Grasping to offer a narrative to a curious public, many public figures turned to a myth best exemplified by Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts.
The people of Bosnia, the story goes, are backward tribes of mountain-dwellers who are unusually wild, predisposed to violence, and who fight each other over “ancient hatreds” whenever they can. Understood through this prism, the war was simply another eruption of inevitable violence confined to the mountains of the newly independent state – a civil war.
Kaplan’s book found its way into the hands of Pres. Bill Clinton, who sometimes referred to the conflict as a civil war, and in his 1996 Address to the People of Bosnia offered a dubious comparison with America’s own civil war. This understanding of the conflict was perpetuated by international media coverage, best illustrated by Edgar O’Ballance’s book Civil War in Bosnia 1992-94, which was based almost exclusively on Western media reports.
It declared that the Bosnian War was a vicious three-sided civil war between territorial warlords and rival militias, summarizing a narrative of the conflict which became embedded in much of the public consciousness outside the region.
At top — Norwegian U.N. troops on their way up Sniper Alley in Sarajevo in November 1995. Above — bodies of people killed in April 1993 around Vitez, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photos via Wikipedia
Much controversy and debate remains around the War in Bosnia. However, a concise overview of the external actors that participated in the conflict can at least establish that the conflict was much more than a civil war.
Following the secession of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia — and, in 1993, Macedonia — all that remained of Yugoslavia were the Republics of Serbia and Montenegro. The Yugoslav army inherited almost all the equipment of its predecessor, and as fighting broke out in Bosnia, the Bosnian Serb forces were issued weapons and equipment from the federal arsenal and retained a communications link to Belgrade.
These forces were further bolstered by the infamous roaming bands of “paramilitaries” from Serbia, who were under the direction of the secret police in Belgrade. In addition, Bosnian Serb troops continued to receive supplies, arms, equipment, training, and financial support from Belgrade as the war progressed, in a relationship reminiscent of that between the Contras and their U.S. sponsors.
However, as the initially dominant Bosnian Serb army became bogged down across the country, this support escalated into the direct involvement of Yugoslav troops – estimated at 20,000 infantry and 100 tanks. Throughout the war a “ghost unit” of the Yugoslav army was maintained, serving as a front to allow Belgrade to pay the wages, pensions and social support of members of the Bosnian Serb army.
Furthermore, Bosnian Serb forces received support from hundreds of Russian and Greek volunteers, some of whom formed the “Greek Volunteer Guard,” leading the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic to proclaim that “the Bosnian Serbs have only two friends. God and the Greeks.” Mossad are even alleged to have provided arms to the Bosnian Serbs in exchange for the safe passage of Jews out of Bosnia to Israel.
Bosnian Croat forces were organized from Zagreb, the capital of newly independent Croatia, and throughout the war and were directed by a general of the Croatian army. Many Croatian officers transferred to serve in the Bosnian Croat army, which was reliant on supplies, arms, equipment and financial support from Croatia.
Their forces were also bolstered by many volunteers from European far-right organizations and a plethora of arms that were smuggled into the country from across Europe. Throughout the war thousands of Croatian regulars fought in an ‘“invisible” army in Bosnia, and by 1995 the Croatian leadership was confident enough to launch a sweeping offensive led by its most elite units into Bosnia, halting just 20 miles short of the largest Serb-held city, Banja Luka.
The size and sophistication of the attack surprised all parties to the conflict, leading observers to conclude that a U.S. military contractor, Military Professional Resources Incorporated, that had been in Croatia as part of a Democratic Transition Assistance Program had a hand in training the troops and planning the attack.
The predominantly Muslim Bosnian government did not have a neighbor to sponsor its war effort or march to its aid, but it did receive assistance from an unlikely grouping of predominantly Muslim states – Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the tacit collusion of the United States. Iran and Saudi Arabia smuggled weapons into the country unhindered throughout the war, and Pakistan’s notorious ISI is said to have provided intelligence and logistical support to the Bosnian government forces.
A report by the Dutch into the genocide at Srebrenica made no reservations about noting “black flights” of C-130s dropping off weapons and supplies in Tuzla Air Base, and it later emerged that the Pentagon orchestrated arms shipments for the Bosnian Muslims utilizing their contacts among the Afghan mujahidin.
Indeed, a few thousand Islamic fighters are known to have made their way to Bosnia from across the Muslim world to form “El Mujahid” detachments that were deployed as shock troops. Further external support was offered in August 1995, when NATO began Operation Deliberate Force, a bombing campaign which would see more than 1,000 bombs dropped exclusively on Bosnian Serb targets in support of the offensive of the Croatian army into Bosnia.
View of Grbavica, a neighborhood of Sarajevo, approximately four months after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord that officially ended the war in Bosnia. Photo via Wikipedia
So what was it?
A strong case could be made that the war was an interstate conflict between Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Incursions into internationally-recognized Bosnian territory by both Croatian and Serbian forces support this argument, which is further strengthened when it is noted that it was the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia — rather than non-state actors from Bosnia — who signed the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the conflict.
This suggests that by 1995 the U.S. State Department recognized the war as an interstate conflict. Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald would argue at The Hague in 1997 that the conflict was “international in character,” a definition which would’ve allowed the perpetrators of atrocities in the conflict to be tried for breaching Part 2 of the Geneva Convention – in addition to their other crimes.
A more nuanced consideration might conclude that the conflict, although an international one, was more of a proxy war fought in Bosnia between Yugoslavia, Croatia, several Muslim countries and NATO, all of whom competed to further their interests in a fragile, emerging state. All the actors listed became directly involved in the conflict, contributing troops and material to the war to achieve their respective goals, without directly coming into conflict with each other.
Perhaps the most convincing analysis, however, comes from Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics, who suggested that the war in Bosnia should be considered as a “new war.” Although localised, such conflicts involve ‘a myriad of transnational connections’ which blur the distinction between internal and external, aggression and repression, local and global and state and non-state.
Viewed through this lens, the war in Bosnia can be seen to have been one of the first of a new type of conflict in the globalized post-Cold War era, in which both state and non-state parties to a conflict operate globally, and borders signify little more than a potential casus belli that can be utilized when advantageous.
The war in Bosnia remains difficult to define, but to continue calling it a civil war has many implications. It perpetuates a misunderstanding of the region. It denies the agency of external actors such as Slobodan Milosevic in the conflict. And it infers that the perpetrators of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II didn’t breach the more robust aspects of the Geneva Convention.