The Bush Administration Blocks a Negotiated Settlement

Despite increasing US influence, the European Community continued its efforts, begun in 1991, aimed at ending the Yugoslav federation through a negotiated secession of the various republics. The EC member states still sought to use the Balkan crisis to affirm the Community’s potential as a global actor. The European Community’s policy of international assertiveness had failed badly in Croatia during 1991, but the Europeans now sought to make up for this failure and to reestablish their diplomatic presence in Bosnia.The continued importance of the Balkan conflict was clear, and is was widely considered “the virility symbol of the Euro-federalists” – a way of establishing the Community as a global player to be reckoned with.


The EC mediation activities were directed by José Cutileiro, a Portuguese diplomat. During February and March 1992, Cutileiro brought together the leaders of the three major groups from Bosnia (including Izetbegović, who represented the Muslims) for a series of international conferences. The EC mediation was predicted on the assumption that Bosnian independence was inevitable, and Cutileiro sought a constitutional arrangement that might defuse ethnic tensions and thus preclude civil war. Cutileiro worked out a plan to divide Bosnia into three separate regions, each of which would possess a high level of autonomy. The central government in Sarajevo would be left with limited powers as part of a confederalized state. Of the total area of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslims were to be given effective rule in regions comprising 45 percent of the total, the Serbs would receive 42.5 percent, and the Croats (the smallest of the three groups) would receive 12.5 percent.


The Lisbon agreement, as it became known, was hardly perfect, and it entailed a compromise among all three groups. For the Serbs, it represented some concession with regard to territory. Serbs accounted for less than half the population of Bosnia, and they owned a disproportionate share of the land; the 42.5 percent that they would receive under the Cutileiro plan constituted a reduction in territorial control. From the Muslim side, the entire idea of confederation was a concession. The Muslims effectively controlled the central government, having won the parliamentary elections, and they favored a unified state; they viewed a confederation with a weak central government negatively. From the Croat side, there was surely dissatisfaction that they would control far less territory than the other groups. Significant numbers of each ethnic group would have to live as minorities in areas dominated by another group.


Despite these flaws, the three ethnic groups all agreed to the plan on March 17, presumably because it was better than the alternative, which was war. Crucially, the Izetbegović government also agreed. The possibility briefly emerged that war could be averted through a compromise settlement. The Bush administration, however, opposed the European efforts from the start, and this opposition contributed to the breakdown of the Lisbon agreement. The administration’s opposition flowed from a more basic rivalry between the United States and the European Community, which was growing during this period. With US encouragement, the Croats and Muslims both withdrew from the agreement – effectively reneging on their commitments – Mach 25-26, 1992. The Cutileiro plan was never implemented, and full-scale war commenced within two weeks.


Let us look more closely at the role of US officials and their efforts to undercut the Lisbon agreement. These efforts began with the US ambassador in Belgrade, Warren Zimmermann, who encouraged Izetbegović to reject the peace plan. A New York Times article notes: “Immediately after Mr. Izetbegović returned from Lisbon, Mr Zimmermann called on him…. ‘[Izetbegović] said he didn’t like [the Lisbon agreement],’ Mr. Zimmermann recalled. ‘I told him if he didn’t like it, why sign it?” According to former State Department official George Kenney: Zimmermann told Izetbegović … [the United States will] recognize you and help you out. So don’t go ahead with the Lisbon agreement” (emphasis added. The former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia, James Bissett, confirms Kenney’s account. In other words, Zommermann offered Izetbegović a direct incentive – US recognition – in exchange for his rejection of the Lisbon agreement.


US efforts to undermine the plan extended well beyond the US embassy in Belgrade. An official Dutch investigation offered this account: “[Secretary of State] Beker’s policy was now directed at preventing Izetbegović from agreeing to the Cutileiro plan … and informing him [Izetbegovći] that the United States would support his government in the UN if any difficulties should arise.” In addition Baker “urged his European discussion partners to halt their plans” for decentralizing authority in Bosnia. It is interesting to note that the section of the Dutch report that discusses this period is entitled, “The Cutileiro Plan and Its Thwarting by the Americans.” Cutileiro himself later claimed: “Izetbegović and his aides were encouraged to scupper that deal [from Lisbon] by well meaning outsiders.” – which was probably a polite reference to the US activities. According to EC mediator Peter Carrington, the “American administration made it quite clear that the proposalsof Cutileiro … were unacceptable.” Lord Carrington also claimed that US officials “actually sent them [the Bosnians] a telegram telling them not to agree” to Cutlieiro’s proposed settlement. These facts strongly suggest that the United States played a key role during this early period of the Bosnia conflict; later claims of US inactivity in Bosnia are incorrect.


The US strategy was successful in removing the possibility of an EC-brokered agreement early in the conflict. Let us now consider a counterfactual question: Could the Lisbon agreement have prevented war in Bosnia? This must remain one of the key “what if” question of the Yugoslav conflict that can never be answered definitively. The plan was accepted by the three parties only in preliminary form, with many details still to be worked out; whether or not a final agreement could have been achieved – even in the absence of US opposition – cannot be known for certain. Nevertheless, the Cutileiro plan clearly held considerable promise, a point acknowledged by former US diplomats. Zimmermann, for example, admitted in an interview with the New York Times that the Cutileiro plan “wasn’t bad at all.” In his memoirs, Zimmermann goes further and states that the Cutileiro plan “would probably have worked out better for the Muslims than any subsequent plan, including the Dayton formula [that ended fighting in 1995].” And according to Sell, who served in the US embassy in Belgrade, the “Cutileiro plan would have established a more effective Bosnian central government and probably resulted in less of an ethnically divided state than the accord agreed to at Dayton.” The Cutileiro plan had the added advantage that it sought to prevent war; this advantage was not shared by any of the subsequent peace proposals, including the Dayton accord.


Some observers doubt that the Lisbon agreement was viable; since, it is alleged, the Bosnian Serb leaders were not negotiating in good faith; they would never have accepted a compromise agreement. There is no question that the Serb leadership contained several dubious figures, some of whom would later orchestrate serious war crimes. In March 1992, however, before full-scale war had begun, Serb leaders welcomed the Lisbon agreement, and they endorsed it in the strongest terms. Radovan Karadžić, who represented the Serbs at Lisbon, called the agreement “a great day for Bosnia and Herzegovina.” And it should be recalled that it was the Muslims and the Croats, not the Serbs, who actually renaged. There is no evidence that the Serbs were bent on war at this point. Even after Izetbegovć reneged, the Serbs remained open to a compromise agreement similar to the Cutileiro plan. As late as April 1992, “the Serb leaders [in Bosnia] were probably still willing to accept a single state organized into a loose confederation divided into three ethnic ‘cantons,'” according to an unclassified report by the Central Intelligence Agency. A revival of the plan now proved impossible, and war was the result.


Overall, US policy – by pushing for early recognition of Bosnia while undercutting EC mediation – augmented the risks of a wider conflict. These risks were recognized in policy-making circles. Sell writes that in early 1992, “The United States … began to press for recognition of Bosnia, reducing the prospects – low as they might be – that continued negotiations could head off conflict.” Kenney states the mater more bluntly: “The [US] intelligence community was unanimous in saying that if you recognize, Bosnia is going to blow up.” The cronology of events supports the view that US policy helped precipitate violence: On March 27, the day after Izetbegovć withdrew from the Lisbon accord – and did so at the urging of US officials – the Serbs declared their independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina, thus laying the groundwork for war. With US support, Bosnia-Herzegovina seceded from Yugoslavia and then achieved international recognition as an independent state on April 6. The Western European states set aside their reservations and went along with the US position on recognition. Full scale ethnic war also commenced on April 6, thus coinciding exactly with the timing of international recognition. Viewed in retrospect, the US policy during this period must be viewed as a destabilizing force. Just as Germany had played a key role in destabilizing the region in 1991, the United States played the destabilizer in Bosnia in 1992.


David N. Gibbs

First Do No Harm (2009)

The Untold Story

From 1992 to 1995, I made a total of six trips into Croatia and Bosnia to report on the experiences of Canada’s peacekeepers. What became readily apparent was that nightly newscasts back home did not depict the same war-torn Yugoslavia being patrolled by our soldiers.
For instance, on September 9, 1993, the Croatian forces unleashed a massive bombardment on a Serbian-held enclave known as the Medak Pocked. This region, designated United Nations Protected Area, was occupied by a Canadian infantry battalion. Following the artillery fire, the Croats launched a pincer-like attack that effectively eliminated the Serbian defenders from the ridgelines. Along the valley floor, Croat tank columns quickly captured four Serb-held villages. Over the next three days, in an effort to fulfil their “protection” mandate, Canadian soldiers from the Second Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI) engaged the Croatian special forces units in a number of firefights. Official reports later stated that some 35 Croats were killed during the skirmishes, while four Canadians were wounded by artillery fire. Through this stoic display of determined resistance, the commander of 2PPCLI, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Calvin, eventually convinced the Croatian commander to withdraw his forces. Before pulling out, the Croats massacred all of the remaining Serb inhabitants. Ordered not to interfere by U.N. Headquarters in Zagreb, the Canadians were forced to stand by as unwilling, impotent witnesses to the carnage. The only recourse possible for 2PPCLI was to catalogue the evidence they had collected, and to seek official U.N. indictments against the Croat commanders as war criminals. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the Croatian government issued a brief, blanket denial, and the whole issue was quickly dropped. The general who had planned and executed the Croatian attack was, in fact, an Albanian Kosovar named Agim Ceku.
The 1993 action at the Medak Pocket garnered only fleeting coverage on CNN and incredibly, given the magnitude of our soldiers’ actions, went completely unpublicized by the Canadian defence department. In fact, the Canadian public did not even learn of the engagement until three years later, when Ottowa Citizen reporter David Pugliese broke the story on October 7, 1996. (It wasn’t until May 1998 that Lieutenant Colonel Jim Calvin finally briefed Parliament – complete with photographic evidence of the massacre.)
For the soldiers who took part in the harrowing Medak operation – Canada’s largest ground battle since the Korean war – the lack of public recognition was disturbing. Warrant Officer Matt Stopford was awarded a Mention in Despatches for his courage under fire and for maintaining his position during the first days of the Croatian bombardment. His forward observation post was just metres from the Croat front lines. Thus, during the last night before the withdrawal, Stopford had been an eyewitness to drunken Croat special forces troops – one of whom was parading around with bloodied panties on his head – raping, looting and killing Serbs with impunity. The restrictive U.N. Rules of Engagement prevented Stopford from doing anything but reporting the atrocities to a higher headquarters.
Upon returning to Canada, Stopford was amazed at the ignorance of the average citizen. “People would hear that you’d just got back from Yugo, and they’d say ‘aren’t those Serbs bastards?’ as if they knew all about the Balkans,” said Stopford. “When you’d start to explain to them how we watched the Serbs get butchered by the Croats, you could see their eyes glaze over. Nobody really wanted to give that much thought to the complexity of the situation in Yugoslavia,” Stopford continued. “For us, it was like coming home from the Second World War and telling people we’d fought for the Germans. Rather than try to explain things, it was easier just to let it go.”
On August 3, 1995, in the same sector that Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Calvin’s 2PPCLI had resisted the Medak Pocket incursion, the Croats launched Operation Storm. This time, the Canadian peacekeepers did not resist. Rather than endanger their own lives, the men of he Royal 22nd Regiment (Vandoos) surrendered their weapons and observation posts to the advancing Croats. Once again, under the direction of General Agim Ceku, the Croatian Army unleashed a devastating artillery bombardment. This time, however, it was German mercenaries in Croatian uniform who spearheaded the attack, and NATO fighter jets that provided them with tactical airstrikes.
The Serb defenders of this region (known as the Krajina) didn’t have a chance – tactically or strategically. The moment the artillery bombardment began, Serb civilians – aware of the massacre conducted by Ceku’s troops in the Medak – began to flee into Bosnia en masse. Their soldiers were right behind them.
Nearly 250,000 Serbs were thus ‘ethnically cleansed’ from the Krajina in advance of the Croat onslaught. Those who chose to remain – or were too tardy in their flight – paid the price. As Ceku’s men swept through the Krajina, all evidence of Serb habitation was systematically destroyed. Civilians were executed; livestock and pets slaughtered; houses burned; and wells poisoned. When thousands of fleeing Serbs sought refuge in the Krajina capital of Knin, General Ceku’s artillery gunners deliberately shelled the city. According to U.N. reports, over 500 civilians were killed or wounded in the bombardment – at a time when Knin was devoid of military targets. In other words, the shelling was an intentional act of terror against unarmed civilians, a war crime.
Two senior Canadian officials serving with the U.N. were present in Knin at the time of the attack, Major Allain Forand and Colonel Andrew Leslie. Both men submitted detailed complaints to the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in an effort to indict not only the commanders (including Ceku, who was responsible for the artillery), but also Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. General Forand and Colonel Leslie alleged that only Tudjman himself could have authorized the massive Krajina cleansing and terror bombardments.
Even though Canadian peacekeepers had been captured and detained during the attack, there was almost no domestic media coverage of the forced displacement of 250,000 Serbs, not to mention the accompanying slaughter. For the Canadian military, the shameful surrender by the Vandoos was an embarrassment that senior commanders understandably did not wish to have publicized.
Since he U.S. had covertly aided the Croats in Operation Storm (though the provision of arms, training, advisors, satellite intelligence and airpower), the massive Serbian tragedy went virtually unreported in North America.
Scott Taylor
INAT: Images of Serbia and the Kosovo Conflict (2000)