Imperialist Air Strikes Widen War In Balkans

By Pat Smith, The Militant, Vol.59 no.23, 12 June 1995

After weeks of prodding by Washington, NATO governments launched air strikes against Serb forces in Bosnia May 25 and 26, widening the five-year-old war in the area that was once Yugoslavia. The New York Times called the action, “a target deliberately chosen to raise the ante.” In response, troops loyal to rightist Serb leader Radovan Karadzic seized nearly 400 United Nations soldiers, hoping to fend off further attacks.

But representatives of Washington, London, Paris, Bonn, and Moscow—known as the Contact Group—pledged May 30 to expand the size of the UN force in Bosnia and supply those troops with heavier armaments. As images of UN troops chained to posts near military targets flashed across TV screens, U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher said, “The use of air power must remain an option.” The most recent attack was the eighth time in the past 15 months that U.S. and NATO jets bombed targets in the former Yugoslavia.

Along with seizing UN troops, Serb forces responded to the NATO bombing of an ammunition depot near Pale by shelling five of the six Bosnian towns designated by the United Nations as “safe areas,” including Sarajevo. More than 80 people were killed in the retaliation by Karadzic's forces. A senior UN official responded by warning, “They are escalating. We will escalate. We will go on with our last remaining option, more air strikes.”

The air bombardments and expanded military presence in the former Yugoslavia come as Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian forces have stepped up fighting in the region and the imperialists continue to fail in their efforts to broker an agreement between the warring groups.

Serb forces under Gen. Ratko Mladic, commander of the rightist military detachments in Bosnia, have repeatedly defied a February 1994 NATO directive that established a 12.5-mile weapon-free zone around Sarajevo. The exclusion zone has steadily eroded to the point where sniper fire and shelling of civilians have become common in Bosnia's capital.

Serb troops refused to return heavy weapons they reclaimed and redeployed from the UN forces. Mladic's troops killed at least 70 people in the central Bosnian town of Tuzla with rocket fire May 25. The attack on the designated “safe area” was the most lethal single shelling of the war. The blast scattered bodies around a cafe terrace where hundreds of young people had been relaxing.

Large-scale fighting spread into Croatia in early May shattering the “permanent cease-fire” reached in March 1994 between Croat and Serb forces. While Serbian troops have been the most aggressive in promoting the war, none of the rival gangs running any of the former Yugoslav republics has acted in the interests of working people there.

Europe looking at own Vietnam “For Europeans, Bosnia is the quagmire that Vietnam was for the United States three decades ago,” wrote Craig Whitney in the New York Times. Sizing up the possibility of a war engulfing the Balkans and spilling over into other parts of Europe, Paris, London, and Moscow had earlier warned they may pull out troops deployed in Bosnia under the UN flag. But the NATO “attack confirms that the United Nations, faced with the choice of taking a tougher stance or withdrawing, has opted for now for toughness,” reported the Times May 26. The paper also pointed out that “the NATO raid-bore the hallmark of American planning.”

Contact Group officials, meeting in the Netherlands May 30, endorsed a plan to regroup the UN force into larger, better armed contingents and grant it the authority to engage in more aggressive actions.London announced it would deploy an additional 6,000 soldiers to the area. The French government sent the aircraft carrier Foch and helicopter gunships to join the more than 4,000 French troops stationed there. Washington, which already deployed the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt to the Adriatic Sea, is also sending 2,000 marines trained in commando operations. U.S. national security advisor Anthony Lake said, “No decision has been made yet to send them into combat.” U.S. defense secretary William Perry agreed to supply 25,000 soldiers to help with any troop withdrawals.

Imperialist conflicts Despite the Contact Group's agreement to reinforce the military presence in Bosnia, the Balkan war has brought to the surface deep rifts among European and North American capitalists. As the war widens, the conflicting interests of the imperialist powers, and those of Moscow, sharpen. Each is maneuvering to gain economic, political, and strategic military advantages over one another in the Yugoslav war.

Russian president Boris Yeltsin, for example, offered May 26 to help resolve the Bosnia conflict if NATO promised to end air assaults. Yeltsin expressed anger that he was not consulted until after the crisis was exacerbated by the air strikes.

“For the past three years, there have been tortuous discussions about which international body—the United Nations, NATO or the Western European Union—was best suited to handle the Balkan crisis,” wrote Bruce Clark and Bernard Gray in the London Financial Times. “But it looks increasingly clear that whatever determines the ultimate fate of the UN's 23,000-strong contingent there, it will not be an intricate plan for multinational co-operation dreamt up by a bureaucrat in Brussels or New York.” The authors expressed their frustration saying, “Each of the outside powers involved in the conflict thinks first about-its own interests.”

Governments with large numbers of troops in Bosnia and Croatia are especially nervous about the reactions of working people at home to expansion of the war. They don’t share Washington's enthusiasm for aerial bombardment.

Even after announcing stepped up troop deployment, London's foreign secretary Douglas Hurd said, “Withdrawal remains a possibility.” The House of Commons and the House of Lords were reconvened to debate London's response in Bosnia. The Labour Party's Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown of the Liberal Democrats backed the deployment.

On the other hand former Conservative prime minister Edward Heath blamed Washington for the Balkan crisis. “We are facing a situation where we may be dragged into a major war and that is absolutely unjustifiable,” he argued. “This is the outcome of the bombing. We have warned against bombing—the pressure has come from the United States.”

French prime minister Alain Juppé distanced himself from the NATO air strikes. He described the bombings as poorly prepared operations that “exposed the peacekeepers to risks” and must never be repeated. Close to 40 French soldiers have been killed in the fighting and 154 are being held by rightist Serbs. Paris, with the largest number of troops in Bosnia, is under increasing pressure as more of its troops die in the fighting. Two French soldiers were killed May 27 during a UN raid to recapture an observation post in central Sarajevo.

The New York Times editors called the NATO air strikes “a justified use of force to safeguard the civilians of Sarajevo.” They also called for additional troops to Bosnia, but not U.S. soldiers. Unwilling to confront the Vietnam syndrome at home, the Times warned that Clinton should offer equipment and marines on an aircraft carrier, “But Washington must draw a firm line at lending those troops to any commando operation to rescue UN peacekeeper hostages.”

“We have not yet shown either the willingness or ability to carry out a concerted campaign of air strikes,” complained Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia and an advocate of much greater use of U.S. military power there. “We are not prepared to take the risk of casualties.”