Milestones

Milestones: 1993–2000

The War in Bosnia, 1992–1995

In 1991 and 1992, Yugoslavia disintegrated under the pressures of ethnic conflict, economic issues, and the demagoguery of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The secessions of Slovenia and Croatia triggered warfare in both new nations, with the United Nations inserting a peacekeeping force, the U.N. Protective Force (UNPROFOR), in mid-1992 to stabilize the situation. The U.N. further imposed an arms embargo on the region, seeking to dry up the flow of arms to the combatants. Serbian forces executed widespread “ethnic cleansing” in occupied areas, creating horrific scenes of refugees and concentration camps that seemed unthinkable in modern Europe.

Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Central Intelligence Agency)

Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Central Intelligence Agency)

Bosnia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 raised the violence to a new level, triggering a war that lasted over three years and exemplified the complexities of the “post-Cold War” strategic environment. The population of Bosnia-Herzegovina was comprised of three ethnic groups: Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim. Initially, Croats and Serbs expanded their territorial control at the expense of the Bosnian state, with the Serbs, supported by Serbia and the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), eventually controlling about 70% of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Shifts in territorial control were accompanied by widespread ethnic cleansing.

While the situation in Yugoslavia was a constant subject of discussion at the highest levels of the Bush Administration, President George H. W. Bush and his advisors considered the situation in the Balkans to be primarily a European issue, to be addressed by the European Union. The lack of U.S. response became an issue in the 1992 presidential campaign, as candidate Bill Clinton advocated a “lift and strike” policy—lifting the arms embargo, which was operating at the disadvantage of the Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and conducting airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces.

Following Clinton’s electoral victory, the new administration set to work quickly with Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright to shape a more active U.N. role in the conflict. In early January 1993, during the final days of the Bush Administration, the United Nations and the European Union had agreed upon the Vance-Owen Peace Plan (VOPP) for Bosnia. A month later, the U.N. Security Council established a war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the United States initiated night airdrops of food to the Muslim enclaves. By March the U.N. authorized enforcement of a no-fly zone in Bosnia, implemented by the United States Air Force in Operation Deny Flight, the first armed engagement of U.S. forces in the former Yugoslavia. Following the Bosnian Serbs’ rejection of VOPP, the U.N. declared the Muslim enclaves of Sarajevo, Bihac, Tusla, Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde to be “safe areas.” The Security Council did not, however, provide for the defense of these areas.

On May 1 President Clinton sent Secretary of State Warren Christopher to consult with the major NATO allies and with Russia in order to gain support for the “lift and strike” strategy. This effort failed, exposing issues that would hamstring NATO’s actions in the conflict for another two years. Alliance members participating in UNPROFOR were concerned that their troops, lightly armed and widely dispersed, were likely to be taken as hostages and did not share Washington’s enthusiasm for an air campaign. Wide divergence between the alliance’s national perspectives on the conflict and very little European domestic support for armed intervention added to the Administration’s problems. NATO’s inability to reach consensus on an effective response to the atrocities called into question the future of the alliance in post-Cold War Europe.

Gridlock in the alliance was mirrored by gridlock in the U.S. interagency policy process. The Department of Defense was very reluctant to commit to a role in the Balkans, concerned as it was about a protracted occupation or guerrilla warfare. Ambassador Albright was active in promoting a western response but she had little influence on the overall administration policy. There was also little domestic support in the United States for intervention in the Balkans, though the violence, documented by cable television news, kept the issue in the public eye.

In June 1993, Serb attacks on the Srebrenica “safe area” led the U.N. Security Council to authorize the use of air power “to support UNPROFOR in the performance of its mandate.” The resolution established a “dual key” arrangement between the U.N. and NATO in control of tactical air power responding to Serbian attacks. This arrangement proved difficult for Washington, as the U.N. was extremely reluctant to authorize any effective combat action on the part of NATO.

On February 5, 1994, a mortar shell exploded in the Markala marketplace in Sarajevo, killing 69 civilians. The attack led to the declaration of a 20-kilometer weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo. A confrontation with the Bosnian Serb forces was averted through Russian mediation.

In early April, Bosnian Serb forces launched an offensive against Gorazde. Following the killing of a UNPROFOR soldier by Serbian artillery, NATO launched an air strike. In turn, Bosnian Serbs surrounded a contingent of UNPROFOR soldiers, and their commander, Ratko Mladic, threatened that none would survive if NATO repeated the air attacks. In the immediate aftermath, the United States led the formation of a Contact Group to spearhead policy toward the conflict. The group agreed on a set of principles for any peace settlement: Bosnia would remain a single state, comprised of the Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb entity, and these entities would be linked by constitutionally-agreed principles. The group further agreed to a map of Bosnia-Herzegovina where the Muslim-Croat federation controlled 51 percent of the territory and the Serbian entity controlled 49 percent. While the Bosnian Croats and Muslim groups signed a cease fire between their forces under the terms of the 1994 Washington Agreement, the Bosnian Serbs rejected the plan. The military balance also began to equalize, as Serbia cut off support to Bosnian-Serb forces while Croatia and Bosnian-Muslim forces built up via an increasingly porous arms embargo. The year closed with a four-month truce negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter.

The spring of 1995 brought renewed combat, with Muslim and Croatian forces now on the offensive in western Bosnia-Herzegovina. Without logistical support from Serbia, Bosnian Serb forces retook U.N.-secured weapons, brushing aside UNPROFOR guards. When NATO responded with air strikes, the Serbs took UNPROFOR troops hostage, using them as human shields. NATO deployed a combat-ready Rapid Reaction Force to Bosnia to reduce the vulnerability of the widely scattered UNPROFOR units.

In July, the Bosnian Serb commanders launched an offensive against the eastern enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa; they massacred over 7,000 men in Srebrenica. The mass killing served as a tipping point to western resolve to bring a decisive end to the conflict. Convening in London on July 21, NATO agreed on the effective end of the “dual key” policy for controlling air strikes, with authority for strikes delegated to UNPROFOR and NATO commanders in the field. The alliance further agreed that any future attacks on safe areas would result in a sustained air offensive.

On August 1, Croatian and Bosnian forces launched a powerful offensive, Operation Storm, against Bosnian Serb-held territory in western Bosnia. The offensive rolled eastward, displacing many thousands of Serb refugees and steadily moving the territorial balance toward the 51/49 balance called for by the Contact Group. The new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Europe, Richard Holbrooke, had seized a major role in policy toward the Balkans, and sought to orchestrate a cease-fire and negotiated settlement. When a mortar shell exploded in the Markala marketplace in Sarajevo on August 25, NATO executed Operation Deliberate Force, an intense two-week series of attacks on Serb military positions.

The combination of the ground offensive, NATO’s air campaign, and Holbrooke’s tireless diplomacy yielded a cease-fire by the end of September. On November 1, negotiations among the three parties opened at Dayton AFB, OH. The parties reached a hard-fought agreement on November 21 and the Dayton Accords, formally the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, were signed in Paris on December 14. The NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) deployed into Bosnia-Herzegovina on December 20.

Last modified: October 31, 2013

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