Regaining Western Slavonia
by General Martin Spegelj
The first thing to be sressed in analysing Croatia's recent military operation to liberate Western Slavonia is that the country would have remained heavily incapacitated if the status quo had been allowed to continue, with one third of its territory under Serbian occupation. Any prolonged extension of negotiations or pursuit of elusive agreements would eventually have led Croatia to de facto partition of the Cyprus type.
Some months prior to the liberation of Western Slavonia, Zagreb had reached an economic agreement with Knin under which roads and railway lines through the occupied territory were supposed to be opened, while trade and othr forms of communication were to be established between the free and occupied zones. Zagreb saw this agreement as a step towards a political solution - a peaceful reintegration of the occupied territories. The Knin bosses, on the other hand, saw it as an agreement between two sovereign states. This is why, whenever displeased, they would react by closing the roads, killing civilians or taking them hostage or conducting sabotage operations - while warning Zagreb constantly of their readiness to shell Croatian cities. And that is just what they did every so often, as in the unprovoked shelling of Dubrovnik during the Easter holiday.
This stage of affairs was obviously unacceptable to Zagreb and the population of Croatia. Nevertheless, President Tudjman long persisted with the model of 'peaceful' integration of Croatia's occupied territories, continually negotiating and re-negotiating the terms with Belgrade. Despite clear evidence that they were leading nowhere, Zagreb took those talks with Belgrade very seriously. As had happened so often before, however, President Tudjman was simply being tricked by his Serbian counterpart Milosevic.
For President Milosevic, the endless negotiations with Zagreb were merely a part of a much more akbitious game. His latest claim - that he had parted ways with Karadzic and Martic - was welcome in international capitals, keen to maintain the status quo indefinitely. The fact that world leaders continued to visit him in his Belgrade lair speaks volumes, however, about Milosevic's decisive influence over Martic's and Karadzic's conduct in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina The truth is that whatever he did, Milosevic could count on international support.
Everyone knows it was Milosevic who, at the start of the Yugoslav crisis, recruited the JNA to work for his cause of creating a Greater Serbia. It was at his behest that part of the local Serb population in Croatia and Bosnia was manipulated into rebelling against the legal authorities. When the JNA broke up,ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
Milosevic was left - largely thanks to the West - in possession of practically all of its weapons, a large slice of which he passed to his proxies in Bosnia and Croatia. However, the fact that the latter were relatively few in number and insufficiently skilled to operate the more sophisticated systems, meant that he was obliged to send his own army units, special forces and commanders from Serbia, at the same time as giving the rebels all necessary logistical support. Even when he publicly broke with Karadzic and Martic, Milosevic continued to aid their efforts towards the realization of a Greater Serbia.
Bearing this in mind, it was clear that the road and rail links vital to Croatia would remain open only at the will of a hostile power, and that all talk of Croatia reintegrating its occupied territories through negotiations not backed by miltary force was a delusion. This has been conclusively proved by events in Western Slavonia. After four years of occupation during which not a single non-Serb refugee was able to return home, this key stretch of Croatian territory was back in government hands only as a result of a decisive military action.
In this operation, Croatian units numbering about 7,500 men faced the 5,000-strong West Slavonian Serb Corps. Victory came after 36 hours of intense fighting. Both sides suffered casualties, especially the Serb one. More than 1,000 soldiers surrendered to Croatian authority. Documents found on prisoners of war showed that one third came from Serbia and Vojvodina (Novi Sad, Belgrade and Kragujevac). These soldiers from Serbia handled tanks, artillery and other technical systems. In other words, at the most vital point, the Croatians were dealing not with West Slavonian Serb insurgents but with elements of the Serbian Army sent in by Milosevic.
By way of revenge for their loss of Western Slavonia, the Knin leaders showered hospitals, schools and public buildings in Zagreb with about 20 'Orkan' (Hurricane) rockets carrying cluster bombs. Seven people were killed and over one hundred and fifty wounded, all the victims but one being civilians. 'Orkan' is a weapon which few states in the world possess (only two 'Orkan') launchers were made in former Yugoslavia) and there is little doubt that Milosevic gained this weapon from either Russia or Iraq, and that it was his soldiers who fired the projectiles at Zagreb. Quite apart from this particulr event, there is ample evidence that two corps from Serbia itself are fighting in Bosnia and Croatia, while the personnel servicing military communications installations, operating missile launchers or commanding artillery formations in Martic's and Karadzic's units all come from Serbia. This proves that Milosevic is playing a double game: publicly, he has distanced himself from Martic and Karadzic and is keen on negoatiations; privately he is doing what he can to keep conquered Bosnian and Croatian territories and thus achieve a Greater Serbia.
Milosevic's double game is, of course, an open secret. It is, therefore, very surprising to see UN Security Council countries giving credence to his public facade, while at the same time insisting on the arms embargo against Bosnia and Croatia. This simply means accepting the fact of occupation and rewarding the aggressor.
The liberation of Western Slavonia was undoubtedly a well conceived and efficiently executed operation; However, it does not change the fundamental truth that, for Croatia, victory can ultimately be achieved only in close cooperation with the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. If such an alliance were properly established then, for example, the Croatian army could use the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina to free in one go the whole area from Pakrac to Knin. It is unfortunate in this regard that Tudjman is so susceptible to international pressure (which, of course, is real enough). It is even more unfortunate that he continues to believe in the possibility of reaching agreement with Milosevic. Even if it were true (as rumour has it) that MilosÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
evic gave his consent to the Croatian action in Western Slavonia, there is no question of his similarly consenting to the full restoration of Croatia's territorial integrity.
Whatever the combination of pressure and advice under which Zagreb operates, it remains the case of Croatia's future lies in its alliance with Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is why Tudjman's lukewarm attitude to the Bosnian alliance is so frustrating. This is even more the case when we hear the most encouraging news that a good proportion of Serbs in Bosnia, represented in the Serb Civic Forum with its seat in Sarajevo, in fact supports an integral - albeit decentralised - sovereign state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Any plan for Bosnia-Herzsegovina must take into account the inescapable fact of its Army, which has grown to a considerable size, whose soldiers are highly motivated, disciplined and trained and whose commanders are most capable and experienced. This Army will put paid to all plans to partition the country. As we have seen over the past few months, its ability to alter 'realities on the ground' is growing by the day. During the past spring alone, it has managed to capture most if not all the strategic heights on Vlasic near Travnik, on Majevica near Tuzla, and on Treskavica between Sarajevo and Foca. The Serbian side will be trying to dislodge them from these positions, but is unlikiely to succeed. The Bosnian Army is regrouping these days in order to prepare itself for major battles that are to come. This means that its current movements, involving several operational zones, are designed to prepare the ground for decisive victories in the future.
To those memserized by Serbian weaponry, the fact that the Serbian forces are responding indecisively and ineffectively - other than by shelling purely civilian targets - may seem surprising. It confirms, however, what has been clear for some time: that their soldiers increasingly lack both the will and conviction to fight. Judging by Banja Luka television reports, the people who fled from Western Slavonia are unlikely to take up weapons again. Their lack of respect for Martic and Karadzic is very evident. The Serbian army is falling apart, and the only thing keeping it together is its surfeit of weaponry. This is why Serbia is no longer relying on military confrontation, and why Milosevic has turned into a 'peacemaker'. His hope is to maintain the status quo with the help of the international community. Hence the apparent split with Martic and Karadzic. This status quo, however, is unacceptable to the other side. There will be no peace in the Balkans without full restoration of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.
General Martin Spegelj, after a distinguished service, left the Yugoslav People's Army on 31 December 1989 with the rank of Colonel-General. After the attack on Croatia he became successively Croatia's first Minister of Defence, Commander of the Croatian Armed Forces and Inspector-in-Chief of the Croatian Army. He left the Croatian Army at his own request, because of fundamental disagreement with the Croatian government's defence policy and policy towards Bosnia-Herzegovina. General Spegelj was retired with the rank of General of the Army (Fou-Star General).