Bosnian army gambles on lifting siege of Sarajevo

Military/ end to stalemate?
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The Independent Online
IN THE sandpit world of the amateur strategist, all attacks are three-pronged, all heights or roads "strategic" and all troops are crack troops. Shorn of the adjectives, this week's events in Bosnia followed a pattern little changed in three years.

The concentration of up to 15,000 Bosnian government troops out of a total strength of about 100,000, seemingly poised to move south-east and cut through the Bosnian Serb stranglehold on the city was unprecedented. It seemed to presage an operation on a hitherto unseen scale, probably at great cost to the Bosnian government army, the BiH.

The timing of the attacks which began at 3am on Friday, as the leaders of the G7 nations met in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was no coincidence. The Bosnian government's PR has always been superb and they have unquestionably won the war for sympathy. They are always seen as the victims, whether of Serbs or Croats. To the world's leaders it was the perfect time to say: "If you will not save Sarajevo, we must do it ourselves."

Supplies in Sarajevo were down to the lowest level ever and the UN had drawn up a plan to force open a route to the Bosnian capital. It was a good time for the Muslim-led Bosnian government to threaten to take the matter into its own hands.

All war is based on deception, the Chinese strategist Sum Tzu said, but it seems unlikely that the massing troops are merely a diversion. Raising the siege of Sarajevo must be the biggest prize of the war. But there are three areas where the BiH also has obvious military objectives.

The first is to cut the Posavina corridor in northern Bosnia, the thin Serb-held area around Brcko, linking the two lobes of Bosnian Serb territory. This would have long-term implications but is secondary compared with saving Sarajevo. Secondly the BiH has been attacking around Doboj where the finger of Muslim Croat territory sticking northward around Maglaj produces a downward finger of Serb territory - the Osrem, a mountain fastness noted for its rugged independence. If the BiH linked up to the north it would create the only Serb enclave inside central Bosnia. But cutting off this chunk of territory could prove more trouble than it is worth.

The third area is the Bihac pocket, which separates Bosnian Serb territory from the Krajina Serbs in Croatia. A push out of the enclave, southwards could conceivably link up with Bosnian Croat HVO forces pushing north, who have been trying to cut off the Krajina and their capital Knin from their kinsmen and bases in Serb-held Bosnia.

The BiH has the advantage in manpower, and, being concentrated mainly in central Bosnia enjoys the advantage of interior lines, whereas the smaller Bosnian Serb forces, estimated at 75,000, are stretched thinly around them. But the BiH is a light infantry army, short of heavy weapons, while the Bosnian Serbs have the firepower. But the BiH can and does turn deficits into advantage. Most of the Serb heavy guns are fairly immobile. The Serbs are also bound more closely to the areas where they live. The BiH can move more freely.

This greater mobility permitted the BiH to mass a force of hitherto unseen size north-west of Sarajevo last week. But they massed it opposite the longest route to Sarajevo - 12 well-defended miles through Ilijas to reach Sarajevo. The BiH still holds a tenuous route over Mount Igman, into the city from the south. Though raked by Serb fire, the BiH could use this route, especially since the Serb belt around the city is thinner here.

Many who have followed the war doubted whether the BiH had the necessary command and control expertise to mount an offensive with a 15,000-strong force, and even more important the bottom for it. Throughout the war none of the sides has shown much stomach for determined close-quarter fighting, though the BiH has shown more then the others. Maybe ending the Sarajevo siege after 38 months would be an objective worth fighting hard, even dying for.

At 3am on Friday, as expected, the BiH launched attacks in several different directions. From outside the Bosnian Serb salient which surrounds Sarajevo it attacked from the north, the west and on Mount Igman in the south. From Sarajevo itself where up to 10,000 BiH troops with about 40 guns and mortars are surrounded by 12,000 Serbs, 300 guns and 200 tanks, the BiH also attacked outwards, to the north-west, south-east and east. Attacking in all directions confuses the enemy. If the thinly stretched Bosnian Serbs misjudge the direction of the main thrust, they could be in trouble.

The establishment of a viable route linking Sarajevo with the Muslim heartland and the other cities of Zenica and Tuzla would be a significant development. If the BiH wins this battle it will probably also encircle a worthwhile number of Serb troops and weapons. It would reinforce the advantage of interior lines, and bring the capital directly into contact with the bulk of the Bosnian Muslim people. Strategically and politically it would be a huge prize.

But there's the rub. The three-sided Bosnian conflict has demonstrated a self-balancing mechanism - one reason why it may never end. In a conventional, two-sided conflict, one side gets the upper hand and then wins. With three sides involved, every time one achieves a decisive advantage the other two gang up on it. A more powerful Muslim state in central Bosnia, pushing outwards against the Bosnian Serbs might start looking unattractive to their recent allies the Croats, who populate Herzegovina to the south. And if they want to, the Croats can cut central Bosnia off from the sea and the rest of the world at any time.