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November 7, 1994
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 163
The Escalating War

Storm Over Bosnia

by Milos Vasic & Filip Svarm

The latest B-H army offensive that started late in October is threatening to upset the balance on the Bosnian warfronts that has been in place since NATO's Sarajevo ultimatum in February and that was confirmed by the Gorazde incident in April. What happened during those eight months of balance in Bosnia?

First, the Croats were passive (both the Republic of Croatia and the self-proclaimed Croat Community of Herzeg-Bosnia). Croat Defence Council (HVO) commander General Ante Roso said in June that the Croats "won't interfere in the Serb-Muslim conflict as long as there's a chance for a political solution". He repeated this in Sarajevo during late August, on the day when the HVO withdrew from around the town of Konjic to prevent themselves from being drawn into the fighting there (those clashes were over the Mostar-Sarajevo road, the only route that can be used year-round). The Bosnian Muslims interpreted that withdrawal as still more proof that the Washington agreement for a Muslim-Croat federation was stillborn. The Croats' passivity is deeply rooted in the Tudjman regime's political paralysis. That regime can no longer avoid the basic choice it faces: will it give in to the "Herzegovinian mafia" or accept offers for a great Balkan normalization of relations, which inevitably means breaking off all contacts with the Herzegovinians. The Herzegovinian mafia is firmly holding on to the strategy that Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic and Herzeg-Bosnia leader Mate Boban drew up in Graz (April 27, 1992): a total division of Bosnia between the Serbs and Croats, or (since that has become difficult) joint action with Karadzic to grab as much territory as possible. Zagreb's indecisiveness seems to have been disrupted by pressure from the U.S. and other great powers and offers by the Milosevic regime for a mutually beneficial normalization of relations.

The key event is Milosevic's political split with Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb Republic. After August 4, 1994, the political and military priorities of all of the warring sides in Bosnia changed. Milosevic had to marginalize Karadzic and defeat him politically. In order to do that, he had to make sure that Karadzic's main argument, the Posavina corridor as the only link between the Krajina Serbs and Serbia, didn't hold up any longer. As long as Karadzic controls that vital corridor, he holds the key to Banja Luka and Knin and Milosevic as the leader of all Serbs who promised to save them from the third genocide in this century. Milosevic's reference to the Serb people as hostages held by the Bosnian Serb President is more a reference to those people than to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SRJ). The efforts to normalize relations with Croatia just had to follow the split with Karadzic. If he opens an alternate route by rail and via the Belgrade-Zagreb highway (with the necessary concessions), Milosevic will turn Karadzic's corridor into an irrelevant factor; both the Bosnian Muslims and Croats can take Brcko, which means that Karadzic would lose Banja Luka, which didn't like him anyway, and he would be left on the Romanija mountains (eastern Bosnia). If he remained insubordinate he would be left to the mercy of the B-H army or the Bosnian Serb army (it's not clear which is worse). That solution has been indicated by gestures from Croatia and Serbia and it seems that the Krajina Serbs are slowly getting used to the idea of some form of wide autonomy within Croatia.

The Bosnian Muslims used the Milosevic-Karadzic rift and blockade of the Bosnian Serb Republic to score several political points along the "We-told-you-Radovan-was-a-criminal" lines. This summer the B-H army received a large amount of weapons and equipment and, through persistent bargaining with the Croats, it secured its rear and its communication lines. It seems they even managed to get regular supplies for the 5th Corps in Bihac. They deftly used the blockade imposed by Serbia and adapted their military activity to it and are now making use of Bosnian Serb Army weaknesses - shortages of fuel, ammunition, spares, and the most painful element: a shortage of manpower.

The effect of those changes is clearly visible now. It began with the defeat of rebel Muslim leader Fikret Abdic by the 5th Corps in mid-August. Abdic's Krajina Serb allies (well-paid) let him lose because he is a Muslim just like Izetbegovic. But the trade between the Krajina Serbs and the current master of the Bihac enclave continued. The B-H army also continued its strategy: low intensity attacks in at least six or seven places along the 1700 kilometer front lines, stretching the Bosnian Serb military to the limit and keeping them constantly tense. Early in September, the fighting escalated in northwestern Bosnia; first, on September 4, 5th Corps commander Atif Dudakovic said he would "expand B-H territory to Bosanski Petrovac and Sanski Most" and the first clashes began around the Grabez heights above Bihac, followed by fighting on Majevica mountain and around the town of Breza, and the 5th Corps penetration into Krajina territory (up to Gradina in Banija). Four days later, a combined Bosnian and Krajina Serb attack threw them back into the Bihac enclave towards Buzim and Cazin. UNPROFOR called the attack alarming and said some 500 Krajina troops and eight tanks had entered the enclave. A week later the mess was still in place: UNPROFOR's Bosnian commander General Sir Michael Rose threatened the Serbs, fighting had increased along the Sarajevo-Tuzla road, Izetbegovic went to Zagreb, the B-H army launched attacks from Konjic towards Herzegovina and NATO threatened air strikes against the Krajina Serbs. The Krajina denied 500 of its troops had been involved in the fighting and specified that it would "attack with five to ten thousand troops and much more equipment if it had to" (that happened later).

On September 20 the situation was a little clearer. The 5th Corps had counterattacked and forced Krajina forces back to Glina, Hrvatska Kostajnica and Dvor Na Uni. They withdrew under the influence of the NATO threat and things stabilized for a while. The fighting across Bosnia continued. The B-H army was defeated near Breza and around Konjic. B-H 7th Corps commander General Mehmed Alagic (on the Kupres front) complained on September 25 that the HVO were unreliable: they're just sitting there behind me, he said, and can't be counted on for any serious action. The B-H troops slowly advanced from Bugojno towards the hills around Kupres.

Things changed abruptly on October 24, badly for the Bosnian Serb 2nd Krajina Corps and Commander-in-Chief Radovan Karadzic.

A skillful night raid on Bosnian Serb barracks on the Grabez heights forced them to flee towards Bosanski Petrovac. UNPROFOR described the retreat as chaotic, with a breakdown of the usually excellent command and control structure and the abandonment of weapons and equipment, which is not typical for the Bosnian Serbs (Colonel Tim Spicer).

From that moment on the 5th Corps advanced in two directions: it surrounded Bosanska Krupa and advanced on Bosanski Petrovac. They took Vrtoce (15 kilometers from Petrovac on the only road to Bihac) and Kulen Vakuf on the Krajina border. At the same time, the 7th Corps took the heights around the town of Kupres, endangering its approaches and the town itself. That resulted in the flight of 12,000-15,000 civilians and added to the tension because it illustrated their lack of faith in the Bosnian Serb army's ability to defend the area. General Dragomir Milosevic, commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija corps, threatened to bomb Sarajevo in retaliation for the Krupa and Kupres offensives.

Karadzic went to Bosanski Petrovac and held rallies, declared a state of war, threatened to put on a uniform and shoot anyone who spreads rumors ("and they will be easily recognized"). Karadzic admitted that "there had been weaknesses on the Serb side" and said that the loss of territory was due to "rumors that certain areas had been sold". Karadzic's position as the "big bargainer" with the Croats made the HVO decision to join the Kupres fighting along with two brigades of Republic of Croatia regulars even more difficult. Their decision to join the fighting is explained by the dangers of the Muslims taking Kupres without them. Kupres is a majority Croat town and the door to central Bosnia. They also thought Alagic was getting lucky and the time was right to join him. On the other hand, it's more acceptable to the Serbs if the Croats take Kupres.

Karadzic told Bosanski Petrovac residents that the town had given "over 20 national heroes in the last war (WWII)" and that "their children and grandchildren are of the same blood, the same idea, they won't be any weaker than their ancestors". That is progress for a man who told the Glina monthly "Otadzbina" in August that "Serbs still live where the Chetniks (World War II Serb royalist guerrillas) remained, but there are no Serbs where the partisans (Communists) were".

While all of this was going on, the B-H 1st Corps launched attacks from the Igman demilitarized zone and captured Trnovo, just south of Sarajevo. Trnovo is the key to links with eastern Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs claimed they had taken "key heights on Igman".

This week the 2nd Bosnian Serb Krajina Corps and Karadzic claimed they had "stopped the enemy's advance and consolidated the lines of defence" and had even taken Kulen Vakuf, which B-H sources denied.

Karadzic said that the situation around Bosanska Krupa was under control, that "the offensive had been stopped", but added that "there were serious problems around Kupres".

During the afternoon of Thursday, November 3, several Croatian and Krajina sources reported that Kupres had fallen to the 7th Corps and HVO units. This opens the way to central Bosnia towards Jajce, Sipovo and more to the combined Muslim-Croat forces, on the condition that their alliance holds up.

The strategic importance of that advance exceeds specific achievements in the fighting (250 square kilometers of captured territory). The 5th Corps captured weapons and equipment on the Grabez front. The B-H army's morale has been given a booster.

On the other hand, the faltering morale of the Serb troops has suffered a blow that could become a pathological obsession for the Karadzic regime and its propaganda based upon territory, percentages and maps. The clash with Milosevic and the blockade of the Bosnian Serb Republic have started a process of rot among the Serbs in Bosnia and that was Milosevic's goal. The Bosnian Muslims have been aware of that since this summer. Milosevic, in a way, is their ally now and should not be faced with an embarrassing situation. That is why no further wide-spread offensive by the combined Muslim-Croat armies should be expected, nor any decisive battles. It seems that the Muslim forces could withdraw and avoid the decisive final battle that they aren't ready for if the Bosnian Serbs launch a fierce and desperate counter-offensive (which is not expected at that intensity).

They're perfectly willing to let Karadzic simmer on Milosevic's fire: why should they bother with him when Milosevic is torturing him himself? In that context, it'll be no surprise if the Muslim troops withdraw on time before General Mladic puts together a force large enough for an effective counterattack. The B-H army can be expected to regroup and use its geostrategic advantage (shorter communication lines) to attack in other places, more towards the eastern part of the Bosnian Serb Republic, which has been weakened by the need to reinforce the northwestern front.

General Mladic finally faces a defensive strategic position. He'll never be able to launch equally fierce counterattacks in all of the places that the Muslims attack because of his republic's unfavorable geography. Keeping the enemy surrounded is a huge advantage if it is used quickly. The surrounded enemy gets stronger in the meantime and the surrounding force weakens and advantages turn to shortcomings.

General Mladic's only chance for a successful counteroffensive is a strong infantry attack (not artillery). The Bosnian Serb army's problem has always been a shortage of troops, i.e. disciplined mobile infantry. At Bihac and Kupres they met an equally strong opponent in infantry fighting for the first time.

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