Colonel Edward Cowan

Globus (Zagreb) 27-09-1991

Why has Europe not provided military support for Croatia? Christopher Long reports from London where politicians and military advisers are deeply divided and probably embarrassed by the crisis in Yugoslavia.

Here in London we've been watching a very good World War ll television mini-series. It's in glorious technicolour and just at the moment there's an advertisement break so we can all get up and make a cup of tea. Almost the last thing we saw was brave Croats shooting down Federal air-force planes while the Croat militias had just re-armed themselves with newly captured weaponry. In the rubble of ruined towns and villages, desperate people were hiding in cellars and wondering why their European neighbours hadn't come to rescue them. Then, suddenly, with the Serbs in control of one-third of the country, the tanks stopped rolling.

The fact is that the reality of the Yugoslav crisis is hard for many West Europeans to accept. It all seems so primitive, so pointless, and so rooted in bitter, vicious and fanatical nationalism. Didn't we bury the body of destructive nationalism in Berlin in 1945? Didn't the birth of the EEC promise peaceful cooperation and prosperous coexistence for ever more? Didn't Berlin in 1990 prove that we were right and all would be well? Thank God Yugoslavia in 1991 is just a film – otherwise we might have to accept that such primitive nationalist instincts might still be lying dormant in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Is that why Europe hasn't come to rescue Croatia? In my view it may be at least one half of an explanation. But there are other more practical reasons too.

Colonel Edward Cowan, who was the British Military Attache in Belgrade until last year, has been very visible on TV, radio and in the press in Britain during the past few weeks. He knows Yugoslavia very well. He has had a lot of experience in peace-keeping forces around the world. But most of all he has observed the Federal and Serbian leadership very closely. In his view the outcome of the present crisis will depend on four main factors:

  1. What are the aspirations of Milosevic and the Serbian politicians and what risks are they prepared to take to achieve the Greater Serbian dream?
  2. What are the aspirations of the Federal Army and how well trained, equipped and motivated is it to achieve its aims?
  3. What does international law permit a British or European force to do, bearing in mind the powers and restraints imposed on the Western European Union, NATO, the EU, the UN, etc.?
  4. What, in practical terms, could the British Army achieve in Yugoslavia bearing in mind the resources available, the potential cost in money and lives, the risks of irritating or internationalising the crisis, and giving consideration to the political price the British government might have to pay?

With regard to Serbian aspirations, Colonel Cowan is not optimistic:

"My feeling is that somewhere in Milosevic's mind he has a figure of 15 per cent or maybe 30 per cent. Anywhere where there is a Serbian minority of more than some particular percentage will be part of Greater Serbia. He is a clever tactician and a committed communist.

"In all my time in Belgrade I was very aware of the closeness between the senior Serbian military and politicians and their communist equivalents in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. I don't think he or his colleagues have changed their views at all. We know that Kadijevic visited Moscow in March and I suspect that the Moscow coup was discussed then. Yasov's visit to Belgrade rather confirms my view."

"I suspect that Belgrade will take more of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina than it needs and will then bargain in peace talks for the areas it really wants. I suspect that Macedonia is already being offered for division between Bulgaria and Greece in return for some deal involving the future of Kosovo. This would liberate the 3rd Army (based in Skopje) and permit some form of assured control over Kosovo."

Indeed, while last week's Greece/Bulgaria/Romania 'conference' failed to meet, Greece undoubtedly has fears or aspirations in Macedonia.

"Overall, the greatest political threat is that the politicians have no control over their forces," Colonel Cowan says.

And the Federal/Serbian armed forces are of greatest interest to him. Broadly speaking he believes the Federal army to be very mediocre, not well trained, not equipped with sophisticated weapons, and with major problems of morale among the ordinary soldiers (20 per cent of whom are ethnic Albanians and many of whom are ethnically unreliable).

"The officers are at least 70 per cent Serb, highly indoctrinated by communist, authoritarian principles, with very little broad, university-style education. The Greater Serbia plan must be known to most of them and widely supported too. However, the Yugoslav army has always been trained to defend its borders, particularly against threats from the north. The plan was always to allow an invader to advance into Eastern Croatia and for the enemy to be defeated in the mountains of Bosnia-Hercegovina (acting like a sponge)."

"Here the 1st and 5th Armies would be supported by the Alpine Units. But the army was not trained for civil war, for street fighting in towns and cities, and it's very interesting that the Federal Army has not succeeded yet in advancing into any city. I doubt if the soldiers would be willing to do it and they must be fearful they would lose against an armed Croatian militia fighting street-for-street on their own territory."

But Colonel Cowan's greatest worry is the attitude of Blagad Adjic whose family was destroyed by the Ustache when he was 16 years old and who is fanatical in his desire for a single, united Yugoslavia.

"I think it was Adjic who said: 'This war will be finished when 10,000 people are dead'. When Kadijevic was clearly suffering from cancer, I felt earlier this year that Adjic was the real power behind the throne. He was one of those people who believes that 'communism will survive where it was born'."

But even Adjic may not be able to pursue his objectives much beyond the present positions.

"I doubt very much whether his soldiers will get out of their vehicles and fight hand-to-hand. The weakness of his army is that there is very bad tank/infantry cooperation. He may have a hard task taking cities like Zagreb but he could make life very difficult for a peace-keeping force," Colonel Cowan believes.

So, what can Europe do now? Legally there is no dispute between sovereign nations which would entitle the UN to send forces under Article 7 of the UN Charter unless the Federal Government invites them in.

No country in the WEU (Western European Union) is threatened and so legally there is little the WEU can legitimately do.

Unless there is a threat or an attack upon a NATO member country (such as Greece or Italy) there is no action NATO can take.

As for the Court of Human Rights and breaches of the Geneva Convention – well, these are matters to be raised when monitors and investigators can freely and safely investigate allegations of human rights abuses or war crimes – when the war is over.

"I think Britain was embarrassed by the German call for recognition," Colonel Cowan says. "After all, Germany is not permitted to send troops and it is Germany which might benefit most from commercial relations with Slovenia and an independent Croatia."

"Furthermore, it was Britain which paid the price in money and lives to liberate Kuwait (at the invitation of Kuwait) and not Germany. I'm not surprised that the French, Italians, and Dutch eventually agreed with Britain that armed intervention or a peace-keeping force was impractical and probably illegal. If there's no peace to keep, how can you keep the peace? If people want to kill each other and you stand in the middle, you risk being killed by both sides."

"And then there's the question of the peace dividend. Britain is in the process of cutting its forces following the end of the Cold War. With a General Election in Britain coming soon, can Mr Major be certain that the British people would support sending troops to Croatia and how could he justify cutting defence expenditure when Croatia proves that we might still have commitments in Europe?"

Certainly there are some embarrassing questions in reply. Britain is oil-rich and oil-sufficient – yet we sent troops to Kuwait. Agreement between Britain and her EEC allies fell apart during the Falkland War (which presented a very similar dilemma to that of Croatia). Britain is probably the most experienced 'peace-keeper' in the world – in Korea, Aden, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Rhodesia, Hong Kong, and Kurdistan, to mention just a few.

"The worst mistake you can make is to believe that you can have peace cheaply," Colonel Cowan says.

The British government may feel that it doesn't want to be involved in the Balkans, bearing in mind the the consequences of Balkan instability throughout history and two World Wars. The USA doesn't want to be involved and Britain and France are the only nations which could intervene. If they can't agree then the whole question of the EEC and the WEU is exposed as a farce.

So, what would Colonel Cowan advise Mr Major to do?

Colonel Cowan has become a good diplomat:

"You could refuse to recognise an expanded Serbia. You could take a collective UN view to discourage Serbian ambitions with political and economic sanctions. If there's a stalemate or a ceasefire you could send a peace-keeping force, but war could start again and Serbia could threaten to internationalise the war in order to improve her bargaining position at the conference table. After all, it would only require Albania to be provoked into action in Kosovo, or Hungary to be pulled into Vojvodina, and then European peace-keeping forces would be at war with their allies."

In the end Colonel Cowan believes it's too early for European intervention and it would require Britain to re-think her role in world affairs if she did intervene.

After leaving Colonel Cowan in his office I returned home to find a young Croatian girl crying in front of my television.

"Has the fighting started again?" I asked.

"No," she replied. "I've just spoken to my mother and she's sleeping in her own bed. I'm so happy for her."

I cut slices of bread for her with my strong, steel knife. Then we both laughed. She remembered our joke about the British peace-keeping forces – the chocolate knife.

Six months after this article was published, Serbia had invaded Bosnia-Hercegovina from the east and Croatia had invaded it from the west. Although about a quarter of Croatia was still under Serbian control (until 1995), by the end of 1992 Bosnia-Hercegovina had been effectively partioned by its land-grabbing Croat and Serb neighbours in what many believed was a co-ordinated policy between Belgrade's President Milosevic and Zagreb's President Tudjman. Throughout 1992-95 the war consisted of attempts by Croats and Serbs to consolidate their positions and adjust territorial boundaries by acting directly against civilian populations. This consisted largely of besiegeing and shelling those towns whose populations could not be moved and operating 'ethnic cleansing' policies of genocide and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes where the population could be directly intimidated. The period 1992-95 saw vast numbers of refugees of all ethnic backgrounds forced to escape north, east, west or abroad. Instead of relying on the formal armies described in Colonel Cowan's statements (above), Serbia and Croatia relied on the ambitions of local armed militias and the greed of mafia bosses to organise and carry out most of the partitioning process. For nearly four years the UN and world powers continued to attempt to negotiate a peace settlement with the polical leaderships in capital cities, unable or unwilling to accept that the real motors which drove the war were not in Zagreb, Belgrade or beleaguered Sarajevo, but at a provincial level. Only when NATO took over from the failed UN operation in mid-1995 (with a force provided predominantly by Britain and France) did pressure begin to be exerted on the local leaderships who recognised that NATO had the will and ability to enforce its peace-making resolutions. The cessation of armed hostilities which emerged at the end of 1995 resulted largely from three factors:

  1. NATO commanders on the ground (unlike their UN predecessors) recognised in mid-1995 that peace could not be negotiated in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo but had to be imposed or negotiated at provincial and local levels with an evident willingness to use overwhelming military force if necessary.
  2. The Bosnian regime in Sarajevo (predominantly Muslim) had, with considerable financial and military help from sympathisers abroad, at last made good use of its superior numbers, organising its own defence with an increasingly effective army by early 1995.
  3. The Croat régime in Zagreb had, thanks in part to US military advice and the import of vast quantities of new military supplies (in breach of arms sanctions), recovered most of its lost territory and achieved most of its ambitions in Bosnia-Hercegovina by mid-1995. Croatia may also have been fearful that its proxies in Mostar would provoke international outrage if they pursued their plan to annexe the city in its entirety as the provincial capital of the self-proclaimed statelet of 'Herceg-Bosna'.
  4. The Serbian regime in Belgrade was facing the prospect of economic and political collapse as a result of the sanctions imposed upon it and wished to disassociate itself from the military catastrophes that its proxies in Bosnia-Hercegovina had suffered at the hands of Croats and Muslims. It may have been still further embarrassed by the increasing proof of serious war crimes committed by its proxies in Bosnia.

© (1991) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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