Secret arms supplies and other covert actions
The following quotation gives a clear indication
of what the secret operations in the Balkans were all about.
'All the conflicts concerned are fundamentally
struggles for power, irrespective of whether the operations are initiated in order to
provide humanitarian aid or to
limit the scope of an armed confrontation. (...) Experience shows that the parties to the
intervention inevitably become parties to the conflict, with their own distinct
The secret arms supplies to the warring factions
took place within the framework of a complex international political constellation.
The United States had to deal with a variety
of fields of tension. After the Gulf War, it was payback time and in the Arab world
(especially Saudi Arabia) it was expected that Washington would support the Bosnian
Muslims. Furthermore, great pressure was brought to bear on the Clinton administration by
the media and Congress, which was dominated by the Republicans. On the other hand, open
military support would bring the United States into conflict with European countries that
were contributing ground forces to UNPROFOR. The European countries expected that
additional arms would encourage the conflict to flare up, resulting in a growing stream of
Displaced Persons. The lift and strike strategy (lifting the embargo and resorting to air
strikes against the Bosnian Serbs) that the Americans opted for, was partly motivated by a
desire to meet domestic and foreign pressure: a 'political gesture', because the US
government knew that the Security Council would not agree and that it would lead to a
decision in London and Paris to withdraw from UNPROFOR. The US lobby in the Security
Council for lifting the arms embargo was also connected to the desire not to have to
deploy any American ground forces.
The third party country strategy offered an
even better way out of this dilemma: the so-called 'Croatian pipeline' (arms supplies from
Iran to Croatia and from there to Bosnia) was an alternative to strengthening the Muslims
and Croats in a military sense after the creation of the Muslim-Croat Federation.
Furthermore, a stronger Bosnia and Croatia would ensure a reduction of the pressure on
Washington to send ground forces.
The American government could do nothing
towards supplies by third party countries, because Congress had removed that possibility.
A law drafted by senators Nunn and Mitchell banned the use of government funds for the
support of or assistance in enforcing the arms embargo. It is the firm conviction of Dame
Pauline Neville-Jones, who in 1993-1994 was chairman of the British Joint Intelligence
Committee, that American personnel themselves were not involved in the purchase and
transport, but were responsible for the funding. According to her, these supplies
definitely were a flagrant violation of international law: the actions of these bodies
meant that the American government violated Security Council resolutions.
As such, the UN itself in part also generated
these secret operations. The fact is that Bosnia was officially admitted to the United
Nations as the 177th member state. It is strange then that the Security Council did not
draw the logical conclusion that a new state may take measures for defence against an
armed attack. The embargo curbed the legal arms trade, but did nothing to reduce the
demand for, and the supply of, arms, and only displaced it onto illegal circuits.
Although the US government will have observed
the increasing influence of Iran, they put up with it. Sarajevo would ultimately, it was
thought, allow the political and military solidarity with the United States to take
precedence over that with Teheran. In the course of time, US intelligence services will
have established that the number of Mujahedin fighters was not considerable and moreover
that they were not in great favour among the Bosnian population. The military leaders of
the ABiH also had a low estimate of their fighting power. The Mujahedin seen especially as
a 'political tool' for obtaining the support of some countries in the Arab world.
At the same time, the Islamic fighters played
a role as a political lever: Izetbegovic was aware that Saudi Arabia and Turkey were
unhappy with the Iranian influence.
There is no doubt that the Bosnian government will have played this trump card to gain the
support of these two countries. Izetbegovic clung as long as possible to the Iranian
connection, but in 1996 Sarajevo had to let go of this under US pressure. The same was
also true of bringing in the Mujahedin. They were tolerated in Bosnia, and were used by
Izetbegovic as a political lever for attracting funds in the Middle East.
In view of
the long history of Turkey in the Balkans, an active role in the region for this country
was predictable. The traditional Greek links with Serbia and the political support of
Athens to Belgrade will without doubt have played a role. Furthermore, Ankara will have
wished to contain the Iranian influence. Turkey was a perfect candidate to serve as a
direct supplier. The armed forces had the aircraft, arms and logistic infrastructure.
Operations could take place undisturbed from the Turkish occupied part of Cyprus, and
Croatia and Bosnia were easy to reach. The American 'logistics patronage' moreover ensured
that the flights to Tuzla remained 'unseen'. It was likely that the Croatian pipeline
would be discovered, but because UNPROFOR did not have the mandate and the resources to
act against it, it did not matter. It was likewise to be expected that the direct flights
to Tuzla, Visoko and Bihac would be seen, in spite of the fact that the AWACS had been
rendered 'blind' or did not fly. The Americans managed through damage control to limit the
damage, while taking a further step-up in the pressure on transatlantic relations into the
The indirect American support of the ABiH by
looking the other way in the presence of direct arms supplies and the Croatian pipeline
were described as a sort of 'Vietnamization' of the war. In other words: a strong ABiH was
created, which was able to compensate for the lack of American ground forces with a robust
Something similar happened at the end of the war in Vietnam. It is not strange that
different views existed within the Clinton administration on arms supplies to Bosnia and
the influx of Mujahedin. There were also greatly divergent views within the CIA on a
comparable operation during the Reagan administration, when Stinger missiles were supplied
to the Mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan. The then Head of Operations for the Middle East
at the CIA, T. Twetten, described the supporters of collaboration with the Mujahedin
fighters within the Reagan administration as 'strange people developing strange ideas' at
the time. Now
too there were dangers attached to illegal arms supplies, which some certainly did
The direct results of the clandestine arms
supplies to the warring factions are difficult to identify precisely. In general terms,
the VRS will have consolidated and sometimes reinforced its military position. The problem
with the Bosnian Serbs was not so much the availability of light and heavy arms, but
rather shortages of trained soldiers. They were supplied amply from Serbia. The
clandestine arms supplies were therefore of greater importance to the Croats and the
Bosnian Muslims. The training and the supplying of arms, for example, simplified the
Croatian operations in the Krajina in mid 1995.
Alongside secret arms supplies, the company
MPRI provided training. An observer who was a witness to the operations in which Croatian
commandos crossed the river Una during the offensive against the Bosnian Serbs, observed
that this was a 'textbook US field manual river crossing'. By
engaging this company, Washington at the same time also reduced the danger of 'direct'
The operation resulted in the killing of more than 500 civilians and the exodus of more
than 150.000 ethic Serbs from the Krajina. In view of the US covert support to the Croats
it will be interesting to see if the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former
Yugoslavia in The Hague will seriously investigate this matter.
The ABiH had no lack of soldiers, but did
lack arms. Heavy arms especially were necessary, but these did not flow through the
Croatian pipeline. Only light arms and ammunition came through, because Zagreb was all too
afraid that the Bosnian Muslims would terminate the Muslim-Croat Federation sooner or
later, and would turn on Croatia with these 'Iranian arms'. The Croats had for instance
not yet forgotten the fighting around Mostar in the autumn of 1993. The ABiH then paid the
VRS to shell Croatian positions. In some areas, the Croatian authorities therefore also
collaborated with the VRS, and there were supporters of containing the flow of arms to
The clandestine arms supplies through the
Croatian pipeline and Black Flights were a violation of the arms embargo imposed by the
international community against the warring factions in the former Yugoslavia. This
embargo was officially sanctioned by the Security Council. The Black Flights were moreover
a serious violation of the No Fly Zone over Bosnia.
This could have led to the total ruin of the peace process, and the negotiations on
reopening Tuzla airfield for humanitarian flights were put directly at risk.
The special representative of the UN Secretary-General, Akashi, reported regularly in 1994
and 1995 on new arms and weapons systems. UNPROFOR, however, had no mandate to monitor or
to oppose the violations of the arms embargo.
The sanctions and the No Fly Zone were violated systematically and could not be seriously
enforced. This sent the wrong signals to the warring factions, namely that the
international community was not prepared to put serious effort into this issue.
The influence of the supplies was also felt
in East Bosnia when in April 1995 the ABiH Spring offensive started. The ABiH in
Srebrenica also received new arms. It has been demonstrated that the clandestine supplies
usually led to rapid transit by helicopter to the eastern enclaves such as Srebrenica and
Zepa. New arms generally facilitated new sorties from the enclaves into Bosnian-Serb
villages and military positions, which in turn provoked a response from the VRS. This
sometimes put Dutch soldiers in danger, because in the enclaves the ABiH all too often
used Dutchbat's OPs as cover in military actions against the VRS.
Therefore the enclave increasingly acquired the status of a 'protected area' for the ABiH,
from which the ABiH could carry out hit and run operations against, often civilian,
targets. These operations probably contributed to the fact that at the end of June the VRS
was prepared to take no more, after which they decided to intervene: the VRS decided
shortly after to capture the enclave.
In this respect, the Black Flights to Tuzla
and the sustained arms supplies to the ABiH in the eastern enclaves did perhaps contribute
to the ultimate decision to attack the enclave. In this connection it is not surprising
that Mladic and other Bosnian Serbs constantly complained about this, but usually received
no response to their complaints. In
the eyes of the VRS, the complaints were perhaps justified, but it must not be forgotten
that UNPROFOR did not have the mandate to oppose the supplies. In fact the sanctions and
the arms embargo had little substance. At most, the flow of arms, ammunition, resources,
oil and other goods was reduced somewhat. The smuggling trade flourished, and otherwise
organized international criminals, including Russians, ensured sufficient supply.
The border between Serbia and Srpska over the Drina may well have been monitored by the
ICFY mission, but this check was far from watertight.
operations from Serbia to Srpska took place daily. There were perhaps too few observers to
man all the crossings, but neither did any major supplies of tanks, APCs and artillery
take place, as the Bosnian Muslims claimed. There was cooperation from the Yugoslav
authorities, because Belgrade had much to lose in the event of excessively visible
violations of the embargo. The UN headquarters in Zagreb did
hear constant rumours of support of the VJ, but hard evidence of it was never received.
Secret UN documents, to which the media referred and that indicated that the VRS was
receiving 'high-level military support' from the VJ and that personnel and equipment was
being supplied across the Drina,
were not found by the NIOD in the UN archives. The conclusion was therefore that there was
Serbian involvement in the war in Bosnia in 1995, but not in a direct way. The military
infrastructure of the old Yugoslavia was still largely intact; the Serbian assistance
related to logistics support, components, payment of officers' salaries and
From the American side it was confirmed that
no evidence was ever supplied that arms went to the Bosnian Serbs across the Drina. The
road via Croatia was open, however. The conclusion therefore was that the embargo along
the Drina was 'fairly effective', albeit not watertight.
There was another Western intelligence service that never had hard evidence in the period
before the fall of Srebrenica of the VRS receiving arms from the VJ, but it still cannot
be ruled out completely. In addition, the ICFY mission had to contend
with a formidable opponent in the form of Kertis, who is described by Western intelligence services as the best organized smuggler in the
Balkans. Large deliveries probably took place
completely outside the view of ICFY, and much was supplied with low-flying helicopters or
through the Krajina; this then happened with the knowledge of Croatia, which had an
interest in a sustained conflict between the ABiH and the VRS because it tied up
Bosnian-Serb troops, who could then not be deployed against the Croats. It also assured
that the ABiH was not nurturing any particularly large-scale offensive plans against
Croatia. Zagreb will moreover, as with Iran, have skimmed the Serbian supplies.
The arms supplies to the warring factions
increased the instability in the region and allowed the armed conflict to flare up. It is
no coincidence that offensives by the ABiH, VRS or Croats took place a few weeks after the
military material was delivered. A common pattern was as follows: clandestine supplies,
training - whether or not supervised by instructors - and after that the start of
offensives. New arms mostly facilitated, the VRS complained, renewed sorties from the
enclaves into Serbian villages and military positions, which in turn provoked a response
from the VRS. Finally, the reconstruction of the secret arms supplies shows that divergent
views existed in the various NATO member states on the possible consequences for the
UNPROFOR troops in the former Yugoslavia. Washington had different ideas on this from most
European capitals, but then Washington had no ground forces in Bosnia.