The Srebrenica Massacre, After Fifteen Years





David N. Gibbs is professor of history and government at the University of Arizona. This article draws from his recent book, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009). Readers who wish to find source material for the quotes above can contact Professor Gibbs, dgibbs@arizona.edu. This article is reprinted with the permission of the author from Foreign Policy in Focus.

The massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, in July 1995, is now being remembered worldwide, as this grim event reaches its fifteenth anniversary.  This was the largest single mass killing of the entire Bosnian war, and indeed, it was the worst massacre that Europe has seen since the 1940s.

The massacre also helped redefine the way that people of progressive political orientation have assessed the idea of U.S. intervention.  For many, the key lesson of Srebrenica is that the United States should have used military force against the Serbs sooner than they did.  It is often claimed that international attempts at mediation of the conflict amounted to the “appeasement” of Serb aggressors, who were merely stalling for time.

Many high profile writers, including such figures as Samantha Power, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, and Jean Bethke Elshtain have argued that the political left should fundamentally reassess its views of U.S. military power.  Some (most notably Hitchens) have also used the Srebrenica case as an argument for supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was presented as an effort to protect the Iraqi people from a vicious dictator (Saddam Hussein), and prevent future massacres.

I believe that Power and others have mis-learned the historical lessons from Srebrenica, and have overstated the value of military intervention as a possible solution to humanitarian crises.  When intervention was actually undertaken in Bosnia, it mainly served to worsen the crisis.  There was considerable potential for a diplomatic solution to the Bosnia war.  And there is evidence that diplomacy came close to settling the conflict, thus preventing the Srebrenica massacre.  But this option was blocked by the United States.

The Facts of the Massacre

The context of the massacre was the larger 1992-1995 Bosnian war, which occurred during the breakup of the Yugoslav federation in the 1990s.  At the time of Yugoslavia’s breakup, Bosnia was a truly multiethnic republic, with three main groups:  the Bosnian Muslims, with approximately 44 percent of the population, the Serbs with 31 percent, and the Croats with 17 percent.  Given their larger portion of the population, Muslim parties were able to establish a dominant position and selected the country’s first president, Alija Izetbegović.  Working in close cooperation with the Croat ethnic group, the Izetbegović government led the country to independence.  The ethnic Serbs, in contrast, opposed independence and they feared the Muslim-Croat coalition, which formed the basis of the new Bosnian state.

With the declaration of independence in April 1992, the predominantly Serb regions seceded from Bosnia and immediately sought to expand their land holdings through a policy of armed aggression and ethnic cleansing against rival groups.  In fairness, all three groups engaged in atrocities throughout the war.  However, there is no doubt that the worst atrocities were committed by Serb militias.

The town of Srebrenica lies on the far eastern side of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with a predominantly Muslim population.  For most of the war, Serb militias besieged the town and the Bosnian government army defended it, nominally assisted by a small number of troops from the United Nations peacekeeping force, UNPROFOR.  The Serb forces shelled the town, causing large numbers of civilian casualties and great hardships for the inhabitants.  Muslim units also behaved in a less than noble fashion, engaging in repeated atrocities against Serb villages in the areas outside of Srebrenica.

In early July 1995, Serb forces attacked Srebrenica and, to their surprise, met little resistance.  Most of the Muslim forces had left Srebrenica, and no serious effort was made to defend it.  The small number of Dutch peacekeepers also simply withdrew, largely because the Dutch soldiers were too few in number and too under-armed to repel the Serbs.  The horrific events that followed have become well known:  The Serbs expelled virtually all the women and children, in a major act of ethnic cleansing.  Males over the age of fifteen were rounded up and systematically put to death, with a total death toll of about 8,000 people.  As reported by the investigation of the massacre authorized by the Dutch parliament, “Muslims were slaughtered like beasts.”

Who was Responsible?

The killings in Srebrenica were largely directed by the local Serb commander, Gen. Radislav Krstić, who is now serving an extended prison sentence for this crime.  It is likely that the Bosnian Serbs’ overall commander Gen. Ratko Mladić, who is still being sought for prosecution, also played a key role.  Serbian political leader Radovan Karadžić is now on trial for his alleged support of the massacre.  The Republic of Serbia and its president, Slobodan Milošević, were at least indirectly responsible for the atrocities that took place in Srebrenica, since they had long supported and armed the Bosnian Serb militias who carried it out.  The Serbian parliament recently voted to apologize for its role in the Srebrenica massacre.  Two international tribunals, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice, have judged that the Srebrenica massacre constituted a case of genocide, in the sense that the Serbs sought to destroy an ethnic population (specifically the military aged males of the Srebrenica area), thus meeting the definition for genocide as established in the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Without question, the Bosnian Serb army and their political and military leaders must bear the overwhelming burden of guilt for having orchestrated this calamity.  However, the Muslim leader Alija Izetbegović must bear some of the blame as well.  Contrary to popular belief, Bosnia’s Muslim-led government was in fact quite ruthless and some of its actions helped lay the groundwork for the massacre.  Specifically, the Izetbegović government followed a clear policy that aimed to maximize casualties of its own civilians, a strategy adopted to  elicit the outrage of international public opinion, and thus leading to Western military intervention against the Serbs and in favor of the Muslims.  That the Muslim leadership deliberately sought to increase the suffering of their own civilians – and that this was a basic feature of the Bosnia government’s strategy—has been documented by Tim Ripley of Jane’s Defense Weekly.  This policy was in fact followed throughout the war.  And with regard to the specific case of Srebrenica, Ripley provides the following account:

British, Dutch, and other UNPROFOR personnel and many veterans of the Sarajevo press corps, including [Martin] Bell of the BBC, and Nick Gowing of the Channel Four television network all came to the conclusion that the Bosnian government decided to let Srebrenica fall to increase the pressure on the international community to intervene [emphasis added] against the Serbs... A month before [the Serb attack], Sarajevo had ordered [Brigadier Naser Orić, the local commander]... to leave for no apparent reason.  He was then prevented from returning.  As the situation worsened, the Sarajevo leadership made no effort to launch diversionary attacks... Dutch peacekeepers near Tuzla told Gowing that they saw Bosnian troops escaping from Srebrenica... carrying brand new anti-tank weapons, still in their plastic wrappings... [British UN peacekeeper Lieutenant-Colonel Jim] Baxter said “they [the Bosnian government] knew what was happening in Srebrenica. I am certain they decided it was worth the sacrifice.”

Once again, it is important to emphasize that the bulk of the guilt for the massacre must surely lay with the Serb forces that carried it out.  However, we should not whitewash the Muslim government’s role in contributing to the conditions leading up to the massacre.

The United Nations has often been criticized for not preventing the massacre.  (The alleged UN failure in Srebrenica is the main emphasis of a recent memorial being established in Bosnia, to commemorate the massacre.)  In particular, the battalion of Dutch peacekeepers, assigned to the UN force, has been singled out for criticism.  This criticism is unjustified, since the few hundred Dutch soldiers, lacking heavy weapons had no reasonable prospect of repelling the much larger and better equipped Serb forces.  The idea that the UN is to blame for the massacre is simply a myth.

Could the Massacre Have been Prevented?

The tragic reality is that the Srebrenica massacre very likely could have been prevented, as indeed the whole Bosnian war could have been prevented—not through military intervention, but through diplomacy.  Too often, we have heard the argument that diplomacy never had any chance of success, and efforts in that direction constituted acts of “appeasement” toward Serb aggression.  These views, however, are serious distortions of the record.

A key overlooked event in the Bosnian conflict was an early effort to prevent war before it actually began, during early 1992.  This effort was directed by the European Community, and was led by Portugese diplomat, José Cutileiro, acting as EC representative.  During February and March 1992, Cutilerio brought together the leaders of the three major ethnic groups from Bosnia (including President Izetbegović, who represented the Muslims) for a series of international conferences, mostly in Lisbon.  The EC mediation was predicated on the assumption that Bosnian independence was inevitable, and Cutileiro sought a constitutional arrangement that might defuse ethnic tensions and thus preclude civil war.  Cutileiro worked out a plan to divide Bosnia into three separate regions, each of which would possess a high level of autonomy.  Political rule in Bosnia was to be decentralized to a considerable degree, and the country was to become, in effect, an ethnic confederation.

The three ethnic groups all agreed to the plan in principle on March 17, presumably because it was better than civil war.  Crucially, the Izetbegović government also agreed.  For their part, Serb leaders expressed enthusiastic support for the plan, since it granted them effective autonomy and self-governance which was, at this point in the conflict at least, the Serbs’ main objective.  The possibility briefly emerged that war could be averted through a compromise settlement.  The George H.W. Bush administration, however, opposed the European efforts from the start, and this opposition contributed to the breakdown of the Lisbon agreement.  With U.S. encouragement, the Croats and Muslims both withdrew from the agreement—effectively reneging on their previous commitments—during March 25-26, 1992.  The Cutileiro plan was never implemented, and full scale war commenced within two weeks.

The U.S. role in scuttling this agreement is little known but nevertheless very well documented.  It played a crucial role in precipitating the Bosnian war. U.S. efforts to wreck the Lisbon agreement began with the ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, who encouraged Izetbegović to reject the peace plan.  A New York Times article notes, “Immediately after Mr. Izetbegović returned from Lisbon, Mr. Zimmermann called on him... ‘[Izetbegović] said he didn’t like [the Lisbon agreement],’ Mr. Zimmermann recalled.  ‘I told him if he didn’t like it, why sign it?” According to former State Department official George Kenney, “Zimmermann told Izetbegović... [the United States will] recognize you and help you out.  So don’t go ahead with the Lisbon agreement [emphasis added].”

Zimmermann himself has publicly denied blocking the Lisbon agreement, but there is a considerable body of evidence that suggests he did block it.  The former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia James Bissett provides this account:

Within days of the Lisbon agreement... Zimmermann flew to Sarajevo and met with Izetbegović.  Upon finding that Izetbegović was having second thoughts about the agreement... the ambassador suggested that if he withdrew his signature, the United States would grant recognition to Bosnia as an independent state [emphasis added].  Izetbegović then withdrew his signature and renounced the agreement.

In other words, Zimmermann offered Izetbegović a direct incentive—U.S. recognition—in exchange for rejection of the Lisbon agreement.

American efforts to undermine the plan extended well beyond the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade. An official Dutch investigation offered this account:  “[Secretary of State] Baker’s policy was now directed at preventing Izetbegović from agreeing to the Cutilerio plan... and informing him [Izetbegović] that the United States would support his government in the UN if any difficulties should arise.”  In addition Baker “urged his European discussion partners to halt their plans” for decentralizing authority in Bosnia.

It is interesting to note that the section of the Dutch report that discusses this period is entitled, “The Cutileiro Plan and its Thwarting by the Americans.”  According to EC mediator Lord Peter Carrington the “American administration made it quite clear that the proposals of Cutileiro... were unacceptable.”  Lord Carrington also claimed that U.S. officials “actually sent them [the Bosnians] a telegram telling them not to agree” to Cutileiro’s proposed settlement.

Even after the failure of the Cutileiro plan, the European Community/Union (often working with the UN) made continued efforts to broker a negotiated settlement during the period  of 1992-1995.  Suffice it to say, none of these plans ever achieved strong U.S. support.  Officials in both the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations remained intensely jealous of European efforts (and UN efforts) to play a leadership role in the Balkan wars; it was feared that European leadership in this case could undermine NATO and U.S. dominance in Europe.  U.S. opposition thus contributed to the failure of multiple peace plans over the course of the war.  This U.S. opposition to a negotiated settlement must be regarded as a historic failure, which helped to make possible the three and a half year war, as well as the Srebrenica massacre.

Military Intervention

Despite their opposition to a diplomatic solution, U.S. officials remained uncertain about the idea of direct military intervention, fearing that such intervention could lead to a Vietnam-style quagmire.  By the summer of 1995, however, U.S. officials set aside their previous hesitation and supported offensive action against the Serbs.  For many interventionist intellectuals, like current adviser to the Obama administration Samantha Power, these offensives were exactly what was needed to stop Serb aggression.  True, the intervention should have occurred much sooner, but at least the Western powers had finally realized that only military force could stop the Serbs (so the argument goes).  In reality, however the intervention led to additional war crimes and acts of ethnic cleansing.

In the summer of 1995, U.S. officials backed military offensives aimed at ending the Serb-led rebellion in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a similar Serb rebellion in the neighboring Republic of Croatia.  The anti-Serb offensives in the two republics were closely linked and carefully planned in advance.  In April 1994, President Clinton himself approved a plan whereby the United States would facilitate the delivery of arms to both Bosnia and Croatia.  Also, the United States later arranged for MPRI, a military contracting firm, to help retrain the Croatian army for offensive warfare.  These preparations lasted more than a year before these newly retrained and rearmed forces were unleashed.

Shortly after the Srebrenica massacre, officials determined that the time was right to actually launch the offensives.  The first attack began in Croatia, known as Operation Storm, whereby government troops attacked rebellious Serbs in the Krajina region of eastern Croatia.  The attack  began with a heavy bombardment of Serb towns, which preceded infantry advances.  The strategy entailed mass ethnic cleansing.  The most detailed account of the initial phases of Operation Storm is from EU mediator Carl Bildt:

[UN observers] saw how the artillery salvoes seemed to move from one section of town [Knin] to another.  They were not aiming for military targets—there were hardly any left.  It seemed that the Croats were trying to spread fear... We will probably never know how many died in the early hours of the morning.  The UN observers reported that the number of innocent people killed was ‘high’... they [UN observers] saw bodies of women and children lying, shot to ribbons along the streets.

It appears that the Croatian shelling sought to stun the Serbs into leaving immediately; many of those who remained would be killed or brutalized by successive waves of ground troops.  From the Croatian standpoint, Operation Storm was a major success.  Their armies captured most of the region in only four days, and they met very little resistance.  From the Republic of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević made no effort to help the Krajina Serbs, who were now viewed as an unnecessary burden.

Operation Storm also generated a humanitarian disaster.  Between 150,000 and 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee the attack.  An international relief official, quoted in the New York Times,termed the Serb exodus “the largest single movement of refugees in Europe since the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956.”  The Croatian government had been planning the expulsion for some time. As early as 1993, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman stated in an official meeting, “there is a growing understanding that Croatia must resolve the [Krajina] problem by war, contrary to international norms, meaning by ethnically cleansing the Serbs from Croatia.”

The Croatian atrocities embarrassed the U.S. officials, and some figures sought to distance themselves from the whole operation, at least in public.  Despite this official distancing, the United States clearly did support Operation Storm, and such support was a decisive factor in Tudjman’s decision to launch the attack in the first place.  U.S. support has been noted by General Charles Boyd, who served as deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, as well as numerous other sources.

The anti-Serb atrocities that resulted from the offensive elicited surprisingly little international sympathy.  Shortly after Operation Storm, Charles Krauthammer wrote the following commentary:

This week in four days of blitzkrieg by the Croatian army, 150,000 Serbs living in the Krajina region of Croatia were ethnically cleansed... where were the moralists who for years have been so loudly decrying the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia’s Muslims? Where were the cries for blood, the demand for arms, the call to action on behalf of today’s pitiful victims?  Where were the columnists, the senators, the other posturers who excoriate the West for standing by when Bosnian Muslims are victimized and are silent when the victim of the day is Serb?

No doubt,FPIF [and HNN] readers will sharply disagree with the neoconservative views of Krauthammer.  But with regard to Operation Storm, his condemnation of Western hypocrisy seems perfectly reasonable.

When Operation Storm was complete, Croat forces crossed the border into Bosnia-Herzegovina.  There, they linked up with the Bosnian government army and the combined forces launched a new offensive.  The Clinton administration was clearly supporting this offensive.  From August through October 1995, the Croat/Bosnian juggernaut attacked Serb positions throughout western Bosnia, with considerable success.  The attacks also produced new waves of Serb refugees, who feared reprisals.  Warplanes from the United States and other NATO countries flew extensive air strikes against Serb targets in support of the ground offensives, which led to solid gains for the Bosnian government, as well as a Serbian defeat.

In December 1995, all parties to the Bosnian conflict signed an agreement in Dayton Ohio, brokered by the Clinton administration, which decentralized authority in Bosnia, creating a Serb Republic comprising 49 percent of the territory, and a separate region for the Muslims and Croats comprising 51 percent.  This agreement effectively ended the Bosnia War.  In reality, the Dayton Accords were not a great deal different from several previous peace plans proposed by the European Union, which the United States had opposed.  However, the U.S. role in settling the Bosnian war constituted a major triumph for U.S. hegemony and for the United States’s principal instrument in Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The offensives of August-October 1995, generated substantial atrocities.  Hundreds of Serb civilians were killed by the combined operations in the Krajina region of Croatia, and in western Bosnia.  The offensives also produced hundreds of thousands of Serb refugees (many of whom were ethnically cleansed from areas that had been predominantly Serb long before the war began).  In addition, some 30,000 anti-Izetbegović Muslims were expelled from the Bihać region of western Bosnia, since they were considered politically unreliable.

In one specific instance, in the city of Banja Luka, U.S. officials do appear to have restrained the Croat and Bosnian forces and dissuaded them from taking the city.  For the most part, however, American officials made no serious effort to stop the massive human rights abuses that were occurring throughout Bosnia and Croatia.  Even after the Dayton accords were actually implemented, in early 1996, there was yet another round of ethnic expulsions, as 100,000 additional Serbs were forced out of areas where they lived.  These expulsions elicited no significant international condemnation and little notice.

At a political level, U.S. policy during this period strengthened the position of Croatia’s President Tudjman, who had an appalling human rights record and an odor of neo-Nazism.  When Tudjman died in 1999, his obituary in the London Sunday Telegraph was aptly entitled “Yes, He was a Monster, But He was our Monster.”  Tudjman was indeed a key U.S. ally.

The number of Serbs killed in the offensives was certainly smaller than the number of Muslims killed at Srebrenica.  And when the wars in Bosnia and Croatia are considered in their entirety, there is no doubt that the Serbs committed the largest number of atrocities.  Despite these caveats, serious war crimes clearly did occur during the Croatian and Bosnian offensives in 1995, and the United States was deeply complicit in these war crimes.  In short the US strategy that defeated the Serbs was very far from being a morally “clean” affair, as it is often portrayed by interventionist intellectuals.

A Cause for Diplomacy

Advocates of humanitarian intervention, notably Samantha Power, have long celebrated NATO support for the anti-Serb offensives as the high point of a humanitarian foreign policy.  Indeed, their only major complaint is that such intervention was not pursued more quickly, prior to the Srebrenica massacre.  At the same time, Power also disparages the various diplomatic efforts to resolve the war since the Serbs, in her view, would never have accepted any of the proposed settlements.

There are two problems with this point of view.  First, it distorts the record of negotiations.  All three parties accepted in principle the proposed Cutileiro agreement in 1992.  The agreement collapsed not due to Serb intransigence but because of pressure from the United States.  The failure of this peace agreement (as well as many subsequent peace plans) is a tragedy.  If the Cutileiro agreement had been fully implemented, there probably would have been no Srebrenica massacre; and indeed there would have been no Bosnia war at all.  Writers like Power tend to ignore or downplay the war crimes—including the mass killing of civilians and ethnic cleansing—that were committed on a systematic basis by both the Croatian and Bosnian forces during the 1995 offensives.  In reality, the Western intervention in Bosnia, however “humanitarian” it purported to be, was a dirty affair indeed, and we now must acknowledge the full costs of this intervention.

The Bosnian example of the West’s influence in a conflict is an argument for nonmilitary and noninterventionist means of dealing with future humanitarian crisis.  It is also an appeal to prevent future Srebrenicas.  To state the matter simply, we should not use the case of Srebrenica as an excuse to argue for more war, and for the quick resort to arms.  The fact that genocide has occurred does not mean the international community should immediately resort to military force, since such force risks making matters even worse than before.  We should avoid the many reckless and demagogic calls to dispense with diplomacy and resort immediately to “decisive” action, which runs the risk of inflaming humanitarian crises.  Military intervention, it should not be forgotten, remains a form of war, and it should only be considered as a very last resort, after all nonmilitary means of settling conflicts have been exhausted.  And above all, we should not make humanitarian crises even worse by overemphasizing military solutions to these crises.



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Arnold Shcherban - 8/11/2010

that under a "terrible" communist rule
in united Yugoslavia, there were no even remotely such a brutal inter-fighting between different ethnic groups populated all provinces of the country. It is the United States' and the United Kingdom's governments (primarily) that had led long and systematic anti-Yugoslavia campaign and applied more than diplomatic pressure to break the country (they considered a significant obstacle to achieving Western dominant position in Balkan region) into several ones.
The US and UK elites recognized quite well that such artificial split will most certainly result in a dangerous ethnic tensions and eventually military conflicts, but who cares about common folks' lives, when strategic goals are at stake?

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