The Daily Gazette, p.A10
27 June 1993.
By Carol J. Williams
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Just as the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has defied all efforts at resolution, so the issue of whether to arm the republic’s outgunned government forces has refused to go away despite repeated rejections.
Bosnia’s unrelenting horror story haunted two major international gatherings this week, dominating a European Community summit in Copenhagen as well as a U.N.-sponsored conference in Vienna on global human rights.
The plight of Muslim Slavs left at the mercy of their attackers following the collapse of a U.N.-mediated peace process stirred demands at both meetings for a lifting of the U.N. embargo depriving the war’s chief victims of weapons for their own defense.
But the debate on the volatile arms issue, like most Western moves in the 15-month-old crisis, has found too little support and probably comes too late.
Although a balancing of the military capabilities of the pro-unity Bosnian side and the segregationist Serbs might have prevented much of the population displacement and slaughter early in the war, the conflict has festered into a chaotic melee of desperate attacks and revenge-taking that would likely be made worse with the introduction of more arms.
A few arguments for lifting the arms embargo remain viable despite the recent outbreak of anarchy, but most observers believe that step alone would only encourage more killing.
“The days for half measures are long over. It’s all or nothing now,” said one European envoy monitoring the Bosnian crisis from this Serbian and federal Yugoslav capital where the battle plans were drawn. “Either we compel the Muslims to face up to the grim choices of gradual annihilation or surrender, or we move in en masse and militarily defeat the Serbs.”
Serbian rebels bent on taking territory for a Greater Serbia have conquered 70% of Bosnia, and Croatian nationalists–partly inspired by the Serbs’ unsanctioned land grab–have firmed up their control over most of the rest.
The imposition of those changes through armed force has left as many as 200,000 Bosnians dead, made more than 2 million homeless, three-quarters of the republic dependent on foreign food aid and nearly every family touched by the orgy of shelling, looting, rape and detention.
Those advocating that the Bosnian government be exempted from the 2-year-old arms embargo imposed on all former Yugoslav republics, in hopes of preventing war, cite the following arguments:
MORALITY: Without the means of defending themselves, the 2 million Muslims and hundreds of thousands of integrated Croats and Serbs could continue to be systematically exterminated by rebel sieges. Bosnia is a recognized member of the United Nations being deprived of its natural right to self-defense. And its leadership advocates ethnic tolerance and integration, in contrast to the morally indefensible quests for ethnic purity being waged by nationalist Serbs and Croats.
PRAGMATISM: Western countries like the United States that are reluctant to risk their own soldiers’ lives to defend Bosnia would not have to intervene if Bosnian troops, willing to fight for their own country, were properly equipped to wage a credible defense. Faced with equal retaliatory force, the rebels besieging Sarajevo, Tuzla and other mixed or Muslim cities might be defeated and a chance created for healing and re-integration.
STABILITY: Military intervention in the form of providing arms to the underdog forces might deter other powerful factions in roiling Eastern Europe from following the Serbian example in seizing territory from weaker opponents. The current message that the West will stand by idly while borders and populations are shifted by force would be replaced with action testifying to the long-term cost of aggression.
PESSIMISM: Bosnians are being killed, maimed, raped and driven from their homes every day. There are no guarantees, nor even indications, that the carnage will stop before the nationalist forces inflicting it are militarily defeated. More weapons might lead to more killing, but if the lopsided distribution persists, the vast majority of the victims will continue to come from the government side.
The counterpoints raised by those opposed to lifting the arms embargo have become more convincing in recent months as the Serbian and Croatian victories over the beleaguered government forces approach a fait accompli :
MORALITY: Funneling in weapons would foster at least some revenge-taking by Muslims against both Serbian and Croatian combatants and civilians. After 15 months of suffering attacks from more heavily armed opponents, some Muslim units have become more radical. The recent offensive by Bosnian government forces in the Travnik area, in which thousands of Croats were driven out and hundreds injured or killed, was one example.
PRAGMATISM: It would take time to get weapons to the government forces once the decision to exempt them was made, exposing Sarajevo, Tuzla and the vulnerable enclaves of eastern Bosnia to all-out assaults by Serbian gunmen using their current advantage in armaments while they still have it. Delivery of the weapons would also be difficult, as Serbian and Croatian nationalists are in range of both Sarajevo and Tuzla airports and would probably attempt to shoot down any planes ferrying in arms for their enemies.
Overland deliveries would require cooperation from either Serbia or Croatia–the former a virtual impossibility and the latter unlikely unless Zagreb also gets Western backing in its own battle to roll back Serbian territorial seizures. Otherwise, huge armed escorts would be needed to push through the weapons convoys, defeating the idea that an arms balance could be achieved without outside ground intervention.
STABILITY: Helping the government troops to fight the Serbs and Croats on more even terms would seem to ensure an indefinite war, as the Serbs are already heavily armed and entrenched. Even in the unlikely event that the Serbs are swiftly defeated by better-armed government forces in Bosnia, and the Croats cowed back into supporting Bosnia, the Belgrade-based warlords directing the battle for Greater Serbia would probably shift the conflict to restive Kosovo and the southern Balkan region to keep the nationalist fires burning. And just as forcing the Muslims to accept defeat now will probably lead to long-term insurrection and terrorism, similar outbreaks of violence by vanquished Serbs could also be expected.
PESSIMISM: Given the explosive levels of fear and hatred on all sides, there is little chance of any faction agreeing to surrender. Though arming the government forces would spread the casualties more evenly among the ethnic groups, more Bosnians will be killed, maimed, raped and displaced every day that fighting, balanced or otherwise, rages on.
While the pros and cons of lifting the arms embargo have shifted toward the negative so late in the war, the idea still has its advocates, motivated by frustration at the failure of diplomatic moves or by creeping guilt over the missed opportunities to stop the now seemingly uncontrollable bloodshed.
Frustration and guilt were thought to be behind both appeals issued this week for arming the Muslims.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl carried a Clinton Administration appeal to the EC summit but failed to persuade his European partners to support even a partial lifting of the embargo. Furthermore, the ill-timed and publicly disclosed revival of the idea apparently encouraged the Sarajevo leadership to believe there was still a chance of getting more weapons, hardening its opposition to a proposed partitioning of the republic into three ethnic ministates.
Hopes–probably false–of growing sentiment for supplying arms also were bolstered by the 88-1 vote Thursday by the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights deploring the international community’s failure to stop “naked Serbian aggression.” Russia voted against the measure, while 54 countries, including the United States, abstained.
The conference resolution characterized the war as “an affront to the collective conscience of mankind” and denounced attempts to force the vanquished government to accept the partitioning.
Western diplomats here say they have increasingly come to the conclusion that supplying weapons to the poorly armed government will have a predominantly negative influence on the region, although some contend that it could still work as part of an overall strategy of escalated involvement.
“I don’t see it working without a number of other steps being undertaken at the same time or at least being readied in the event they are needed,” said one Bosnian expert at a Western embassy here.
Those other measures include airstrikes against Serbian artillery positions ringing Sarajevo and the eastern Bosnian enclaves of Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa to prevent the rebels from preemptive conquests, and a serious threat of follow-up attacks and even ground intervention to keep a guiding hand over the deadly Balkan end game.