Evening Standard

Robert Fox


As the 20th anniversar­y of the Srebrenica massacre approaches, reports on the terrible consequenc­es of a failure in political decision-making and military strategy A SHIFT in policy emanating from the Clinton White House and UN Headquarte­rs, leading to the suspension of air strikes over Bosnia in the summer of 1995, allowed Bosnian Serbs under Ratko Mladic to overrun easily the UN protected enclave of Srebrenica, it has been claimed 20 years after the event. The capture of the enclave, defended by a small force of Dutch UN soldiers, led to Mladic’s men then killing some 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men — the worst war crime in Europe since the Second World War.

The strange story of the suspension of Nato air strikes, and the shift of policy driven by the US and the UN, has only fully come to light this past week through a TV documentar­y by the Dutch VPRO channel and documents disclosed to a closed-door conference of experts on Srebrenica at the Institute for Global Justice in the Hague.

Just a stone’s throw from the institute, General Mladic and his political crony Radovan Karadzic are being t r i ed for war crimes at the Internatio­nal Tribunal.

The documents show that by the end of May 1995 Bill Clinton and his security adviser on Bosnia, Sandy Berger, had become disillusio­ned with the use of mass air strikes to deter the Serbs in Bosnia — as they had led to 450 UN peacekeepe­rs being taken hostage.

Doubts were compounded when a US F-16 on patrol over northern Bosnia was shot down by Serb missiles — the pilot, Scott O’Grady, was rescued after hiding out for almost a week. Nothing was said publicly about the shift of view on air strikes, however.

Mr Clinton and the UN also wanted to try to get peace negotiatio­ns started — and believed suspending air strikes would help this. “You can’t even say there was a proper, clear decision, it was just a drift in policy through the capitals and at the UN headquarte­rs,” said a senior official who was on the ground at the time and attended last week’s conference.

Which probably makes things worse. The suspension of air strikes was not communicat­ed to UN forces, nor to the Dutch and Bosnian government­s.

“We asked for air strikes nine times,” said Joris Voorhoeve, the Dutch defence minister in 1995, recalling the Bosnian Serb attack on Srebrenica on the weekend of July 9-11. “None came, and we didn’t know why,” he said in The Hague. A small Dutch flight did respond to the 10th request, but by then the Serbs were at the gates of the compound and the aircraft only dropped one bomb, well short of the target.

The documents shown to the conference, and about to be made public by the NSA archive in Washington, indicate that the Clinton team gave up on air strikes and on the whole UN policy of protected Muslim enclaves in Serbian-controlled territory in Bosnia.

Separately, declassifi­ed cables indicate that Britain, France and the US were aware of the risk to Bosnian Muslims and had even been willing to cede “safe areas” to appease Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

In the VPRO documentar­y an uncomforta­ble Mr Berger confirms that the US and some of its allies wanted the enclave system to end and for the

‘We asked for air strikes nine times. None came and we didn’t know why’

Joris Voorhoeve, former Dutch defence minister towns such as Srebrenica to fall, in order to tidy up the political map. On reflection, he says, the suspension of air strikes “was not a productive act”.

The Americans, through collective briefings by the Clinton team at the time, suggested that the UN operation in Croatia and Bosnia was a screw-up by the Europeans. It was only after the Srebrenica massacre when the US took over with renewed air strikes that the crisis of Bosnia was solved at the Dayton talks.

The latest revelation­s are a shocking story of failure of political decisionma­king and a clear, coherent strategy agreed and understood by all concerned — particular­ly those in the field like the under-supported Dutch peacekeepe­rs of Srebrenica.

The lessons of the Bosnia muddle of 1995 are glaring — and the problems of divided political and military command, as well as unclear policies, bedevil us as much or even more now than 20 years ago, with the West split on how to approach Ukraine, North Africa and Islamic State.

The shilly-shallying on the protection of the Bosnian enclaves was gross political ineptitude and led to the evil of mass murder in Srebrenica.

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