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Socialist Review, May 1994

Notes of the Month


Powers of partition


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A new round of Western military intervention and diplomatic manoeuvring in Bosnia has produced nothing but embarrassment for the Western powers and still less hope for those suffering the carnage of war.

Many hoped that the deal which forced the Bosnian government into a new alliance with the Croat forces in February would herald the beginning of the end for the fighting. This deal was very much the result of American pressure. United Nations threats, followed by Russian manoeuvres, then seemed to bring hope to many of the main cities under siege, including the capital, Sarajevo. Commentators then talked of bringing the Serbs into an extended deal which may lay the basis for an end to the war.

However, the United Nations soon found that military intervention meant picking sides – against the Serbs. The test came over Gorazde, a mainly Muslim city (and a United Nations safe haven). On 10 and 11 April President Bill Clinton sanctioned the first ever Nato air to ground attacks against Serbian forces laying close siege to the city.

No sooner were the attacks launched, however, than they were stopped. The Western leaders then rapidly shifted their attention to the possibility of a new deal with the Serbs. Clinton covered his gyration by claiming he had merely responded to a ‘technical request’. Yet soon after the attack the US government said it was willing to consider a French proposal to discuss lifting international sanctions against Serbia.

For those who had hoped Western military intervention would provide a solution in Bosnia – including most of the British left – these events must seem frustrating and confusing.

One reason for the about face was that the episode highlighted the weakness of the Western powers, and confirmed the fears of those in the military establishment who dread getting bogged down in Bosnia. After the air strikes the situation soon turned messy for the West as UN aircraft were shot down and UN forces came under attack and were taken hostage. An SAS unit sent to Gorazde in advance of the air strikes ‘beat a stealthy retreat, leaving their United Nations High Commission for Refugees colleagues without saying a word’. If that were not embarrassing enough, these events took place as the US shot down its own helicopters over northern Iraq.

The on-off attack of Gorazde also illustrates the military frictions between the Western powers. The British and French governments would dearly like the US to commit ground troops. Clinton, however, has been adamant against this. According to one Nato source, ‘There is no clear sign of the will to act militarily in the [alliance] capitals.’

The events also reflect the relationship between the US and Russia. The US has been keen to both assert its independent power, but at the same time keep the Russians on board as possible brokers of a deal with the Serbs. This pattern was also shown clearly in the brinkmanship that accompanied the partial lifting of the siege of Sarajevo.

The response by many liberal commentators to the actions of the last month has been predictable – to argue that more firepower should be used against the Serbs. This was also the position of Labour’s John Cunningham.

But arguing this position not only ignores the weakness of the West in Bosnia, it also falls into the trap of plumping for one of the three possible ways in which the imperialist powers might attempt to stitch Bosnia up.

The US government in particular has made faltering attempts to resolve the conflict by coming in decisively on the side of the Croats and the Muslims – this was clearly the intention of the Muslim/Croat pact they pushed through earlier in the year. But the Croat, and more recently Muslim, authorities have carried out the atrocities of ethnic cleansing every bit as zealously as the Serbs.

Another option is to lift the arms embargo. But this would flood the country with more arms going to all three sides in the battle and be an open invitation to those governments such as the Turkish, who want to step up and broaden the conflict for their own ends.

The other alternative, now being considered by the Americans in particular, is to end aid operations and increase pressure for all sides to agree a final ethnic partition of the country. This has been the effective aim of all Western intervention throughout the war. Even the recent Muslim/Croat agreement, for example, was hailed by one US official as ‘a sophisticated division of the Bosnian republic between Croatia and Serbia’.

Indeed, the fighting around Gorazde can be seen as a Serbian attempt to get the maximum out of a carve up that has already been agreed, ‘cleansing’ one of the last Muslim outposts on ‘their’ side of the country.

We cannot tell which of these options will be backed. The war in Bosnia is characterised by the acutest instability. We do know, however, that the war is an attempt by the leaders of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and the major powers, to ride out the storm created by the economic and political collapse in the former Yugoslavia.

The Western military presence there has not stopped a single atrocity, and the Western attacks against the Serbs have only succeeded in driving ordinary Serbs back into supporting their leaders. Indeed, Western intervention is undermining those who attempt to bring real solace to the victims of war. Cornelio Sammaruga, the president of the International Red Cross, has complained that the military presence ‘undermines the humanitarian aid effort’.

As we have long argued, the only hope lies with those who have nothing to gain from war and ethnic partition – the ordinary people on all sides. They have struck, mutinied, demonstrated and deserted against both the war and its effects. Three years of Western intervention – pressing them to back their own leaders and ethnic partition, have only held them back.

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