At this time, the world marks twenty-five years since the Srebrenica Genocide in the former Yugoslavia in July 1995.
What lessons can Israel derive from that horrific episode?
For centuries, the Balkans had been Europe’s Middle East: backward, unstable and savage lands, in which Christians and Muslims had never stopped slugging out ancient conflicts going back to the inception of Islam and the subsequent Crusades.
In the wake of the First World War, a conflict which began in the Balkans and rapidly engulfed the entire world, the victorious Allies were desperate to bring stability to that boiling cauldron which had destabilised so much of Europe for so many centuries. Uniting much of the region into a single country called Yugoslavia was supposed to bring that yearned-for stability.
But Yugoslavia was an inherently unstable country, held together until the Second World War by its monarchs, and after the Second World War by its Communist dictator, Marshal Josip Tito.
During the Second World War, Axis forces (German and Italian) had invaded and occupied Yugoslavia. Tito commanded the partisans, fighting ferociously and exceptionally successfully against both the German Nazis and Italian Fascists, and against Yugoslavs who collaborated with them – the Muslim Bosniaks (who earned the dubious distinction of being the only non-Aryans ever accepted into the Waffen-SS), and the Croatian Ustaše forces led by Ante Pavelić (who, when his side lost the war, fled to Argentine where he found refuge along with so many other Nazi war criminals).
Fighting under Tito (who was a Croat) was another dedicated and brave partisan, Neđa Mladić, also a Croat, who was killed in combat against the Ustaše towards the end of the war.
The Yugoslav partisans, under the command of Tito, fought so successfully that they succeeded in capturing a small part of bordering Italy, which was subsequently annexed to Yugoslavia – and Italy has never regained the area.
Tito’s impressive wartime record and force of personality held this artificially-constructed nation together.
He was, to be sure, a master political operator: on the international level, he manipulated both the Soviet Union and the USA into supporting him, while keeping Yugoslavia firmly independent of both.
He convinced the Soviet Union to pour vast amounts of money into Yugoslavia, and kicked all the Soviet “advisors” out as soon as he had the Soviet money.
He persuaded the USA to equip the Yugoslav Army, without paying so much as a single para or cent, and – more importantly – without having to accept a single US military base, or even a single soldier or advisor in his country; without giving the USA any concessions whatsoever, no treaties, no footholds, no quid pro quo at all.
And internally, he ran a comparatively liberal economy, allowing Yugoslavians far greater economic freedom than any other communist country; also far more political and personal freedom. Not that Yugoslavia was free by Western standards: it wasn’t. But it was far freer than any country in the Soviet bloc.
And so Yugoslavia worked. It creaked, it needed oiling – and Tito knew how to oil it to keep it working.
But all good things come to an end, and Tito died on the 4th of May 1980 after more than a third of century of uninterrupted and unchallengeable rule.
Tito left no successor; inevitably, because no one in all Yugoslavia could replace him. The country was ruled instead by a Presidium, a “collective presidency” consisting of the heads of the Communist parties of each of the republics.
And so, inevitably, this artificial construct containing two alphabets, three religions, four languages, five nationalities, and six republics began to disintegrate.
The Eastern Orthodox Macedonians, Serbs, and Montenegrins had little in common with the Catholic Slovenians and Croatians; and those had even less in common with the Muslim Bosniaks.
Inevitably, the substantial Muslim minorities in Macedonia (one-third of the population) and Montenegro (one-fifth of the population), and the smaller Muslim minorities in the other republics, identified far more with each other than they did with their respective republics – and they identified as Muslims far more than they did as Yugoslavs.
There had been an all-too-brief hope that the constituent republics of Yugoslavia could split form each
And thus Hell itself exploded in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Enter Slobodan Milošević and Ratko Mladić.
Milošević began his career as a hard-line Communist, ideologically opposed to all nationalism. A native of Serbia, he was president of Serbia from 1989 to 1997, and then, until 2000, he was president of what remained of Yugoslavia, after Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina had seceded (and had their own internal civil wars, splitting up still further).
For Milošević, the switch from hard-line Communist to equally hard-line Serb nationalist was easy and natural (as indeed it had been in earlier decades for Benito Mussolini).
Mladić was born in Croatia in 1942, the son of Neđa Mladić (the anti-Nazi partisan who had been killed in action).
Milošević and Mladić took up arms, ostensibly to defend their populations from attacks by the Bosniak Muslims. True, the Bosniaks had attacked Christians, but those attacks were hardly unprovoked: they were a continuation of more than a thousand years of mutual Christian-Muslim hostility.
But the Montenegrins, Serbs, and Croats were far more numerous, better-armed, better-trained, and better-equipped than the Muslims were. And so, in the competition of mutual massacres, the Muslims lost.
It was a campaign that added the term “ethnic cleansing” to the English language, used initially by the Bosnian Serb Army, commanded by Mladić, and the Yugoslav People’s Army, under the political control of Milošević, as a euphemism for genocide.
Beginning in July 1995, well over 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks were murdered in and around Srebrenica.
Cable TV was still a relatively new phenomenon, and this was only the second major conflict (after the Gulf War of 1990-91) to be broadcast live. Brief soundbites and 30-second segments couldn’t possibly give detailed analyses of the conflict, its background, its history, or which side was doing what to whom.
This latest phase in a millennium-old conflict was reduced to showing white European Christians massacring Muslims, the world was enraged, and the result was international intervention.
NATO, led by the USA, launched Operation Deliberate Force, a three-week aerial bombing campaign from 30th August to 20th September 1995, to force Milošević’s and Mladić’s forces out of Srebrenica, creating a safe haven for the Bosniak Muslims.
This was the first time in NATO’s history that it had launched any military campaign; and this is a crucial historical insight.
NATO had been created almost half-a-century earlier in 1949, as a military alliance uniting the nations of the West. Its most fundamental principal is that if any of its members are attacked, then the attacked country can rely on military support from all other countries.
This was, of course, designed as mutual protection from the emerging Soviet Bloc. But in fact, in all the conflicts which the various member-states of NATO ever faced, the alliance never delivered.
- when France faced insurrection in its colonies in North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) in the 1950’s and 60’s and in French Indochina (1951-1954);
- when Britain faced insurrection in its colonies in Cyprus (1955-1958) and Kenya (1952-60);
- when India invaded the Portuguese colony of Goa and annexed it (1961), and
- when Portugal faced military insurgence in Angola (1961-1974) which ended in Angolan independence from Portugal, in Guinea-Bissau (1963-1974), which ended in Bissau-Guinean independence from Portugal, and in Mozambique (1964-1974), which ended in Mozambican independence from Portugal;
- when the USA fought in Korea (1950-1953) and in Vietnam (1961-1975),
- when the USA invaded the Dominican Republic (1965) and Nicaragua and Grenada (1983);
- when Argentina invaded sovereign British territory of the Falkland Islands (1982) precipitating the Falklands War, in which Britain fought a conventional war to regain the territory
– in none of these conflicts did any countries receive any military assistance whatsoever from NATO.
Indeed, not only did no NATO country ever come to the assistance of any other, but in several conflicts NATO found themselves on opposing sides.
In the Kadesh Campaign (the Suez War or Sinai Campaign) of 1956, Britain and France were military allies of Israel. Meanwhile, the most powerful NATO leader of all, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was furious with all three countries (Britain, France, and Israel), and even threatened US military intervention against those if they didn’t withdraw from the Sinai Desert.
In 1982, when Britain fought a war against Argentina, Spain publicly supported Argentina against its ostensible NATO ally Britain.
Two full NATO allies, Greece and Turkey, are constantly squabbling, and have several times reached the very brink of all-out war, their mutual hostility going back to at least 1830 when Greece won its War of Independence against the Turkish Ottoman Empire (the Caliphate), which had subjugated and occupied Greece for four centuries.
Their mutual membership in NATO has done little if anything to alleviate their historic animosity.
So we return to the question with which we opened: What are the lessons for Israel? (And indeed for all humanity?)
The first is: Don’t rely on the USA, or any other country, for your survival!
Well over 40 years of NATO proved that allies don’t necessarily come to other allies’ assistance. France, Britain, the USA, Portugal – all had allies, all were members of the mightiest military alliance the world has ever seen, but when conflict came, they all fought alone, they all lost or won battles and wars by themselves.
And then came the Yugoslav War, and the horrific experience of the Bosniak Muslims demonstrated that even if the USA decides to protect you, and even if they mobilise the entire might of NATO in your defence, then that defence is going to come way too late.
Yes the US-led NATO forces prevented the genocide from spreading still further – but only after untold devastation had already been wrought.
And this is the absolute best that anyone can hope for when relying on the USA, or any foreign power, for protection.
Another lesson is: Don’t trust the experts! It is remarkable – well, frightening, really – how few political scientists, political pundits, historians, strategists, tacticians, and other intellectuals foresaw the break-up of Yugoslavia and its attendant human suffering.
Writing in 1981, the late Rabbi Meir Kahane wrote, “With the death of Tito in 1980, most fears focused on whether the Soviets might attack Yugoslavia and pull it back into Moscow’s orbit. But the greater question lies in whether the country can keep from falling apart from within” (They Must Go, page 167).
Rabbi Kahane’s observation proved to be uncannily prescient: indeed, uncountable gallons of ink were spilt debating whether Yugoslavia could remain independent of the USSR – while few if any commentators at the time foresaw Yugoslavia’s imminent descent into civil war.
As a consequence, no one made any provisions for preventing or even containing the civil war until well after it had exploded – by which time it was far too late.
So don’t ever be complacent, trusting the political scientists who calmly assume that stable republics will remain stable republics. Even in situations in which the imminent break-up into extreme violence should have been clear years if not decades ahead of time, the world’s experts are woefully incapable of predicting change.
But the most important lesson of the Srebrenica Genocide and some of its consequences go to the very heart of Islam and its relations with the rest of the world.
This lesson we will address in Part 2.