The Tide of War Turns
by Branka Magas
As US-brokered peace talks continue in Dayton, Ohio, it is ironical that it should be supposedly 'pro-Bosnian' Americans who seem to be intent on providing Slobodan Milosevic with a lifelife. Having lost, in the middle of this year, practically all its projected Croatian territories, Serbia saw the ceasefire of 12 October arrive just in time to prevent the complete collapse of its Bosnian holdings: fresh from capturing 7,000 sq km of its western bulk, the Bosnian and Croatian armies were closing in on Banja Luka, the real capital and only significant city of 'Republika Srpska' ('RS'), when the order came to halt.
With Croatian forces advancing from Mrkonjic Grad and the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina's 5th Corps from Sanski Most, Banja Luka was about to be encircled and turned into an enclave. The fall of Jajce a few weeks before had deprived it of electricity and reduced public broadcasting to a minimum. News of the rapid loss of a whole string of towns - Bosansko Grahovo, Bosanski Petrovac, Glamoc, Drvar, Jajce, Sipovo, Mrkonjic Grad, Kljuc, Sanski Most, Bosanska Krupa - was thus brought in directly by the tens of thousands of refugees, and by the demoralised soldiers of Gen. Mladic's army who accompanied them in their flight. As artillery fire drew closer and rumours of an imminent attack started to circulate, Banja Luka began to succumb to panic.
The Belgrade weekly, Vreme reports Karadzic's deputy Nikola Koljevic ringing up Milosevic to tell him that, unless the offensive was stopped within hours, there would be a complete collapse of RS. Unless SerbiÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌTa intervened at once there would be an uncontrolled exodus of around 200,000 civilians and soldiers into the Posavina 'Corridor' leading to its own frontier. However, it was not Belgrade in the event that sent its cavalry to the rescue, but the United States itself, which put all-out pressure on Sarajevo and Zagreb to halt their troops. Nevertheless, if the ceasefire amounted to a last-minute deliverance, this can only be temporary. For the tide of war had turned decisively against 'RS' and the Greater Serbia project.
Not so long ago, Serbia held 28% of Croatia and 70% of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Its confidence, based on overwhelming military superiority, was so infectious that the international community hurried to propitiate it. The Security Council sent UN troops to guard its possessions in Croatia, re-naming them UNPA Sectors East, West, North and South; in tandem with the European Union, it then drafted successive proposals for the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, adjusting them to keep step with Serbia's growing conquests, euphemistically described as "realities on the ground'. An assortment of pundists, who between them knew less of the area than could fill a postage stamp, talked and wrote admiringly of Serb military prowess, insisting that the record of this warrior race in World War II, when it single-handedly engaged at least 12 (or was it 60?) crack German divisions, meant that NATO would be foolish to intervene.
But then came May 1995 and 'Operation Flash': within a couple of days, UNPA Sector West reverted to what it always had been - the western end of the Croatian province of Slavonia. A few months later, Croatian forces mounted a new offensive - codename 'Operation Storm' - and in less than five days wiped much of the 'Republika Srpska Krajina" ('RSK') (or UNPA zones North and South) off the map, liberating 11,000 sq km of the country's territory. What had up to then appeared as the solidly entrenched westernmost region of Greater Serbia suddenly dissolved into a river of fleeing soldiers and civilians.
There is no doubt, however, that the decisive blow against Greater Serbia was delivered by the Bosnian Army's 5th Corps at Bihac, under its commander Gen. Atif Dudakovic. Described by many as the best infantry fighting today in Bosnia, the soldiers of the 5th Corps had survived three and a half years under conditions of complete encirclement, during which they succeeded not only in crushing Fikret Abdic's rebellion but also in defeating three Serbian offensives. Thanks to their exceptional commander and his doctrine of 'active defence', the 5th Corps was able to maintain at all times a high degree of mobility. The conviction that 'unless we finish Dudakovic now, we shall have him next spring on the Drina' was widespread among Serbian officers.
By a truly superhuman effort, the 5th Corps managed on the eve of Operation Storm to halt 35,000 soldiers from 'RS' and 'RSK', supported by four mechanised battalions and one hundred heavy artillery pieces, and prevent them from entering Bihac. The attacking forces, commanded by Gen. Ratko Mladic of 'RS' and by Gen. Mile Mrksic, specially seconded to 'RSK' for the purpose by Belgrade, had as their task the total destruction of the 5th Corps. The start of Operation Storm, however, forced Mrksic to concentrate on what turned out to be an evacuation of army and civilians alike from Croatia. As soon as the Croatian offensive began, Dudakovic moved too and in a strong counter-attack crossed into (occupied) Croatian territory. After destroying parts of two 'Krajina' corps and capturing large quantities of heavy weaponry and ammunition, Dudakovic's forces joined Croatia's at Trzacka Rastela on the river Korana. The siege of the 'safe area' of Bihac was over for good.
The operation which was to culminate in the open threat to Banja Luka started, on the Bosnian side, on 9th September, when Dudakovic launched a large scale offensive intended to destroy the main citadel of 'RS' in western and northwestern Bosnia. He acted ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌTin coordination with Croatian forces operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina under the terms of the July 1995 Split Agreement between presidents Tudjman and Izetbegovic, and with Operational Group South, formed by the Bosnian General Staff in the spring of 1994 out of the Travnik 7th Corps commanded by Gen. Mehmed Alagic and parts of the Zenica 3rd Corps. As the 5th Corps moved along the River Una and Croatian units pushed towards Jajce, Gen. Alagic managed to break through the heavily fortified 'RS' lines at Donji Vakuf and from there push northwards towards Banja Luka.
In parallel to these operations in the west, the Bosnian army has scored significant gains also on the strategically important Ozren range in the north-east, which lies within the zone of responsibility of the 2nd and 3rd Corps. By capturing Vozuca at the southernmost tip of Ozren, the journey time between Zenica and Tuzla has been halved. Ozren's importance comes from its proximity to Doboj, northern Bosnia's most vital communication centre: whoever controls Doboj controls also the 'Corridor'. The Bosnian Army's military pressure against Doboj has tied down the 'RS' 1st Corps, preventing it from maintaining defensive positions around Banja Luka during the Bosnian-Croatian offensive in the west. As the frontline has moved towards Doboj, the town has been filling up with refugees, and fear among its population has been growing. That the time is now ripe to cut the 'Corridor' is a widely accepted view among military experts in the area. When this happens, the war will move to the very borders of Serbia. As Dudakovic and Alagic have been telling journalists these days: 'Our goal remains the River Drina'.
The secret of the great transformation on the Bosnian battlefield has lain not in NATO air strikes, but in the Bosnian-Croatian military alliance. In contrast to the high morale and growing military power of the Bosnian-Croatian military armies, the forces of 'RS' are in a stage of terminal decline. Since the fall of the 'Krajina' in Croatia, their morale has plummeted. War weariness among Bosnian Serbs is such that mass desertion has become quite common. Indeed, Mladic's problems with recruitment has obliged Serbia to send Arkan and his 'Tigers' into Bosnia, in order to force men of military age to the front by terror. Given that many of the towns and villages taken in recent Bosnian and Croatian operations were before the war majority-Serb, soldiers originating from them have been leaving their posts to search for their families. As a rule, once civilians begin to flee so too do the local units.
Croatian and Bosnian military successes have forced Serbia to redefine its war aims. Belgrade and Podgorica sources agree that the Serbian General Staff considers the entire area west of the town of Brcko as indefensible, so that the most Serbia can now hope for is to hold onto territory east of the Osijek-Bijeljina-Tuzla-Zvornik-Sarajevo-Dubrovnik line. This is the view also held by Croatian military analysts. In the latest issue of War Report, General Karl Gorinsek writes about Belgrade's desire to colonize with Serbs the depopulated areas of eastern Bosnia, so ruthlessly 'cleansed' of their overwhelmingly Muslim population first in the blitzkrieg of 1992 and most recently after the fall of the 'safe areas' of Srebrenica and Zepa. This idea was what lay behind General Mrksic's role in organising the mass exodus of Serbs from 'Krajina', at the time of 'Operation Storm'. These Serbs, as well as those leaving western and central Bosnia, would be moved to create an ethnically compact and militarily defensible Serb territory, which would then be given to Serbia in any eventual peace plan. To judge by the contents of the 'Agreed Basic Principles' proposed by US negotiator Richard Holbrooke as a basis for the negotiations in Ohio, the United States seems to be moving in precisely this direction.
Whether Serbia will succeed after all in creating at least a reduced Greater Serbia at Bosnia's expense depends, however, not just upon BoÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌTsnia's own resistance but also to a large extent on Croatia's intentions. Despite the good cooperation between the two armies in recent offensives, there has also been considerable friction among them, as each has raced to capture towns ahead of the other. The entry of Croatian forces into Jajce, for example, has prevented the strategically important linking up of the 5th and 7th Corps. Croatia and Bosnia, however, form a compact geographical mass: with Croatia wrapped around Bosnia and Bosnia forming Croatia's 'soft belly', the interests of the two countries run so much in parallel that it will be difficult for Zagreb to trade with Bosnia's territory without decisively weakening Croatia's own long-term security. Generals Spegelj and Tus, Croatia's most authoritative military strategists, have repeatedly stated in public that any extension of Serbian power beyond the Drina will provide a permanent threat to the security of both Croatia's Adriatic coast and its eastern Slavonian province. Bosnia can function as Croatia's front-line defence against Serbia's expansionism, however, only if its population - Serb and non-Serb alike - returns home. Current attempts by Zagreb to Croatize parts of western Bosnia will fail, since Croatia does not have enough population to fill the demographic void even in the former 'Krajina', let alone beyond its frontiers. For this reason, the stability of Bosnia - which means its territorial integrity and sovereignty - is likely to prevail over annexationist ambitions as Croatia's overriding concern, however reluctant the Croatian leadership may still appear to grasp this essential truth. This is why the American peace plan, like all the earlier peace plans premised on Bosnia's partition, is unrealistic and bound to fail. The Bosnian Army has tasted victory and it will be difficult to stop it from inflicting the final defeat on an increasingly weak 'Greater Serbia'. There is no doubting either the Army's high morale or the population's determination to prevent their country's partition. One indicator of this was the recent unanimous rejection of any partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the local Croat assembly in the strategically important town of Orasje in the 'Corridor'. Orasje will be the bridgehead for Croatian forces when the crucial order to close the Corridor comes.
Bosnian generals Dudakovic and Alagic have these days been repeatedly telling journalists, eager to hear their views on the ceasefire and the forthcoming negotiations, that the liberation of the whole country remains their goal. 'Our goal is to link the three B's: Bihac, Banja Luka and Bijeljina. The war for us soldiers cannot be said to be over until we can secure the return of our people to their homes, and for this we must establish the Bosnian state's authority over its whole territory'. 'My soldiers will never accept that a thousand-year-old country like Bosnia-Herzegovina be broken up and divided, not even into two entities.' 'We do not recognise the Serb Republic. We recognise only the Serb people who consider Bosnia to be their state'. 'The strong and powerful Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina is the centre around which all the patriotic and democratic forces gather. Croats, Serbs and even Bosnian Czechs are fighting today in the Army and its 5th Corps: here lies the answer on the impossibility of partitioning our country'.
This article appeared in New Statesman and Society on 10 November 1995.