Bosnian Crisis

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Bosnian Crisis (1990s).As the Cold War ended, the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, contributing to bloody civil war in Bosnia (1991–95), ultimately led to a NATO‐led peacekeeping mission that constituted the largest military operation in Europe since World War II.

Created from several Balkan states in 1918, Serbian‐dominated Yugoslavia began to unravel after the death of Communist leader Tito ( Josip Broz) in 1980. In June 1991, the Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence, which was quickly recognized in an extraordinary unilateral move by the newly unified Germany, an old ally. Germany pressured the European Union, including Britain and France, old allies of Serbia, to recognize the breakaway republics.

On 15 October 1991, the parliament of the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia‐Herzegovina adopted a declaration of sovereignty, and a majority of the voters opted for independence in a referendum held on 29 February 1992. The Bosnian population was approximately 44 percent Muslim, 31 percent Serb, 17 percent Croat, 8 percent other; and in general, the Muslims and Croats supported secession (although many Croats favored joining Croatia), while Bosnian Serbs objected.

The Bosnian Serbs began to carve out enclaves for themselves, and with the help of the largely Serbian Yugoslav army, the Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzíc and Gen. Ratko Mladic, took the offensive, laying siege to a number of cities, most prominently the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. Their shelling and sniping resulted in many civilian deaths. By the end of August 1992, the ethnic Serbs had extended their control from 60 to approximately 70 percent of Bosnia. Reports of massacres, mass rapes, and “ethnic cleansing” (the expulsion of Muslims and other non‐Serbs from areas under Bosnian Serb control) led to public demands for Western intervention. In 1991, the United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo on all the republics; and in 1992, it ordered economic sanctions against Yugoslavia, holding the Belgrade government of President Slobodan Milosevic responsible for actions of the Bosnian Serbs.

Fueled by media coverage, public pressure mounted in the West, but the major European governments were reluctant to act. President Bill Clinton's administration condemned Belgrade and the Bosnian Serbs as the aggressors and supported an arms embargo but declined to commit U.S. forces. The military feared a Vietnam‐like quagmire in the mountains of Bosnia, and much of the public and Congress believed that the Europeans should resolve the matter.

But the only effective multinational military force in Europe was NATO, and any NATO action required U.S. leadership. That began haltingly with NATO's agreement in July 1992 to monitor a UN arms embargo to stop Belgrade from supplying the Bosnian Serbs. Britain, France, and several other countries sent some soldiers as UN monitors. In March 1994, the Bosnian Muslims and Croats linked their territories into a single federation, and an international peace plan proposed dividing control of Bosnia in half between the federation and the Bosnian Serbs. But it was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs, and the fighting continued.

A Bosnian Serb offensive in 1995—especially the capture of the alleged “safe havens” of Sebrenica and Zepa—together with more reports of large‐scale atrocities, led the Clinton administration to commit NATO airpower against the Bosnian Serbs. A rebuilt Croatian army, joined by Bosnian Muslim forces armed by Iran and other Muslim nations, launched major ground attacks and successfully pushed back the Bosnian Serbs. In combination with a NATO air campaign, this gain changed the balance of power and forced the Bosnian Serbs to reduce their territorial ambitions.

The Clinton administration now took the lead, obtaining a cease‐fire on 5 October 1995, and a month later bringing the three Balkan presidents— Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia‐Herzegovina, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia—to Wright‐Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, for peace talks. Three weeks of negotiations resulted in the three presidents initialing the Dayton peace agreements on 21 November. This was followed by a lifting of the UN economic sanctions against Yugoslavia. Signed in Paris on 14 December 1995, the peace treaty ended the four‐year civil war. It also sought to establish a Bosnian republic of two “entities” divided 49 percent for the Bosnian Serbs and 51 percent for the Muslim‐Croat federation. The 42 months of warfare had left 250,000 people dead and driven more than 1 million from their homes.

A 60,000‐strong international Implementation Force (I‐For), under command of NATO, would replace the UN monitoring force to provide for implementation of the agreement. The largest contingents included the United States with 20,000 troops, Britain with 13,000, and France with 8,000; but more than two dozen countries sent soldiers, including Russia with 2,000 troops. Congress gave basic approval on 13 December 1995, and the United States ended its arms embargo and began to upgrade the Bosnian Army. The U.S. occupation sector was in eastern Bosnia, around Tuzla. The soldiers deployed in late December and early January 1996, and quickly established a 2.5‐mile‐wide buffer zone between the opposing forces. The American soldiers lived in newly constructed army camps, staffed checkpoints, and went out on heavily protected patrols.

The U.S.‐instituted Dayton Accords envisioned a sovereign, multi‐ethnic Bosnian republic composed of Croats, Muslims, and Serbs. Thus the peacekeeping force's mission was not simply to prevent the resumption of the civil war, which it did, but also to protect the return of refugees and the conduct of free local elections as important steps in rebuilding the new republic. This was a lofty goal, which the peacekeeping force was unable to achieve because of feuding among Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. The Western governments and the international stabilization force were reluctant to act as local police or to try to arrest persons for war crimes. Indeed, the West was divided, as Britain and France differed with the United States by offering greater support for Serbia as a continuing power in the region and allowing partitioning of Bosnia into Serb, Croat, and Muslim sectors.

Under the Dayton agreements, the NATO‐led implementation force was to be in Bosnia for one year. But in December 1996, this deadline was extended, although I‐For was succeeded by a “follow‐on” force (the International Stabilization Force) and reduced to 30,000. The United States still had 6,000 troops in Bosnia in 1999. It remained far from certain whether the internally secure, multiethnic Bosnian republic envisioned by the United States in the Dayton agreements would be sustained or whether the country would fragment along hostile ethnic lines, leading to a partitioning of Bosnia into Muslim, Serb, and Croat sectors. In 1998–99, when the Yugoslavian government's increased control of Kosovo province was challenged by ethnic Albanian rebels and bloody fighting resulted, NATO agreed to send a peacekeeping contingent of nearly 30,000 troops, to which President Clinton contributed 4,000 U.S. peacekeepers, if the warring Serbs and ethnic Albanians could not reach a peace agreement.
[See also Kosovo Crisis (1999); Peacekeeping.]


Rebecca West , Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, 1941; repr. 1968.
Misha Glenny , The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, 1992.
Edgar O’Ballance , Civil War in Bosnia, 1992–94, 1995.
David Rieff , Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, 1995.
Laura Silber and Allan Little, eds., The Death of Yugoslavia, 1995.
Susan L. Woodward , Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War, 1995.

John Whiteclay Chambers II