Small Wars Journal

The War in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992-1995: An Assessment of the War’s Historical Context and Typology

Tue, 09/20/2016 - 10:30am

The War in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992-1995: An Assessment of the War’s Historical Context and Typology

Zdravko Matic and Frano Stojic


Serb-Montenegrin’s invasion of Bosnia and Herzegovina is portrayed as a ‘civil war’ for the reason that the great powers and ‘international community’ did not react properly and compelled the JNA to stay out of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s internal affairs. To all intents and purposes this war should be reclassified as an internationalized civil war. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina occurred between 1992 and 1995.  Many political analysts and historians referred to the war as one for independence or as a civil war. This characterization is incomplete and contributes to numerous misconceptions about the conflict. These traditional types of war do not account for all relevant circumstances that led to the war’s beginning and the basic nature of this complex war. When categorizing an armed conflict, it is critically important to consider and analyze all the war’s components to include the conflict’s operating environment. One must also assess the strategy and purpose of war and analyze the applied means and methods of warfare. International Relations experts tend to attach too much importance to inter-ethnic strife as the primary cause of the war. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, these pundits tend to ignore how Serb-Montenegrin aggression manifested through the Yugoslav People’s Army contributed to the rise of inter-ethnic conflict. In addition, one forgets that before the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B-H), there were few if any inter-ethnic tensions and there was no national issue. There are many books on the Bosnia and Herzegovina war but a definitive characterization of the essence and character of that war is still lacking.

To understand the war better, it is necessary to understand who in Bosnia and Herzegovina advocated and supported independence and whether this war can be considered in isolation from wider regional conflict that occurred following the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are three distinct ethnic groups.  These included the Bosniacs,[i] the Croats, and the Serbs. After the collapse of communism and the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, each sought to secure their identity, national rights and legitimacy. The problem is further complicated because all the three peoples identify with different religions.  The Bosniacs are largely Muslim, the Croats are predominantly Roman Catholics, and the Serbs are Orthodox. With the disintegration of the one-party system, each group challenged the other regarding local issues, while appealing to nationalism as a rallying cry to acquire resources and unify their people. Debates within the newly constituted Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina occurred in an atmosphere of political intolerance that exacerbated political and ethnic differences. The dysfunctional government and lack of political will of ethnic Serbs to seek consensus led to an irreconcilable breakdown along ethno-religious lines. The leaders of each of the three groups successfully mobilized their masses in a deadly struggle for resources and power. Fearing the results of the first democratic elections, the ruling Yugoslav communist elites stressed a nationalist ideology in hopes of maintaining power. In sum, the ethnic and other political issues that were not resolved at the end of World War Two and those that the communist regime had suppressed through strict supervision re-emerged.

There are valid arguments that the Bosnian-Herzegovinian war was a civil war. However, most researchers and analysts have ignored the dominant role of the so-called Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) in the conflict. Without the JNA’s involvement, the ethnic and religious rivalries in Bosnia and Herzegovina would have taken a completely different course. The JNA was Serb-dominated and therefore an excellent asset in the Slobodan Milosevic’s plan to engineer and disseminate ethnic intolerance and hatred for establishing Greater Serbia. The JNA was an external imperialist factor in B-H where it transformed into the Serb-Yugoslav Army. The JNA’s involvement favored the Serbs as was evidenced during the war in the two former Yugoslavian republics of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991. The JNA, as the aggressor, provoked hatred by shelling the cities, carrying out ethnic cleansing and helping the Serbs to occupy 70% of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Consequently, the expelled Croats and Muslims fought each other in the struggle for the control of the remaining 30% of B-H territory.

The Yugoslav People’s Army, therefore, was a hard power actor that did not play according to democratic principles. In such a politically and emotionally charged environment, there was only one solution - the application of force. The critically important role of the Yugoslav People’s Army could only be countered through armed resistance as the creation of the national corps of Croats exemplified. However, the Bosniacs (Muslim) national body wavered and hesitated for too long, which eventually led to a loss of confidence thereby converting allies into angry opponents. At this point, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina entered a senseless and destructive stage where there was no readily identifiable point or goal associated with the fighting. Only through the diplomatic effort of the United States, was a renewed alliance between the Croats and Muslims established.  This alliance proved to be a strategic turning point. Ethnic Serbs lost their dominance in Bosnia and Herzegovina and a combination of force and negotiation led to the Dayton Agreement.

The Historical Context

In 1989, the US Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Eagleburger stated, ‘we are entering a world in which power and influence are scattered among many countries. This world will not be more secure and stable. On the contrary, it will serve to promote nationalism and changes that will happen in Central and Eastern Europe to the surface will release long-suppressed ethnic antagonisms and national rivalries.’[ii] Additionally, Jack Snyder offered the following, ‘Structural deformation of a multi-polar system mean that small riots turn into big conflicts that are the result of militarism and nationalism which is fed by multi-polar uncertainty.’[iii] Disintegration of the former Yugoslavia occurred under these circumstances. The great powers’ argument that the Yugoslav federation needed to be preserved, in fact, was the incentive for the Yugoslav People’s Army to intervene in the democratically independent republics of former Yugoslavia. Four days before the Croatian and Slovenian declarations of independence, on 21 June 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker during his visit to Belgrade promised Milosevic that the U.S. would not recognize the independence of Slovenia or Croatia. ‘When Milosevic asked what the U.S. would do if Belgrade resorted to a military solution, Baker merely stated that it would be ostracized by the international community.’[iv] So, facing no real threat of force, Milosevic unleashed JNA against Slovenia and Croatia. When their turn came, Bosnia and Herzegovina faced the same scenario as the Slovenians and Croatians had in 1991.

Why did they fail? The great powers of the democratic world simply did not fully support the democratic process in the former Yugoslavia. If they had, then coercive measures could have deterred the JNA. Since there were no indications of international intervention, the Yugoslav People’s Army fulfilled their ‘constitutional duties’ without fear of reprisal.  The ambiguity associated with declarative diplomatic statements that failed to obligate a nation to a course of action contributed to the lack of a peaceful resolution of the Bosnia and Herzegovina crisis. A clear and unambiguous political objective from the beginning would have placed local politicians in a dilemma because they did not share the same goals. Since international peace and security is the primary goal of all international actors, it was necessary to subdue parochial interests and conduct diplomatic negotiations, consultations and mediation for this greater good.

However, as Realist’s contend, national interests general prevail and therefore any attempt to rescue a sovereign and independent Bosnia and Herzegovina failed. No common objective unified the international community in the Bosnian and Herzegovinian quest for independence. Without this unity of effort, the process lacked focused and effective diplomatic measures. What followed appeared to be aimless wandering and opportunistic avoidance in assuming collective security obligations. Domestic politicians expected more international engagement than they received and more security guarantees from the international community. However, the rhetoric of ‘the international community’ lacked action and the bureaucratic machinery of the West appeared to inhibit the application of any meaningful policy. If the preservation of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign state was a fundamental interest, then the international community would have opted for military means to support this objective to ensure unity of effort and cohesion. Nevertheless, traditional military principles do not always apply in the political arena, and military measures of performance are not always useful. It was much easier to compose a joint diplomatic statement in the spirit of the UN Charter that… ‘We will continue efforts in order to resolve the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina.’

In this international climate, it was unrealistic to expect negotiations to eliminate or suppress the factors that threatened the safety and secure democratization of Bosnia and Herzegovina. No one offered an acceptable solution on the integrated management of defense and security, let alone its reform or transformation. The primary justification for this approach was the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. The international community was evidently unprepared for the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the end of the Cold War. Because there was no formal arrangement for regional security, the West reacted haphazardly. It seems that the goal of international order was beyond the scope or the interests of collective security organizations seeking international peace and security.

The Road to Independence is the Way to War

Geopolitically, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had existed between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This was fortuitous because Yugoslavia was not a primary Cold War battleground.  With the ending of Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the great powers no longer had sufficient interest or motivation to resolve the internal problems and crises that emerged in that country.

Thucydides once pronounced in his famous Melian dialogue that ‘large nations do what they wish, while the small nations suffer what they must.’[v] By this logic, the United States ceded control of the crisis to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Shortly thereafter, international peace negotiations and mediation occurred.  They took place within the jurisdiction of what was then the European Community (EC).

In Luxembourg on 28-29 July 1991, the European Council, during the peace conference on Yugoslavia, debated the preservation of the territorial integrity of the Yugoslav federation. However, it failed to answer the question of self-determination.  What if some members wanted to secede from Yugoslavia peacefully using democratically inspired methods. The Federation was already in a state of decay, and ‘the international community’ did not understand that supporting the Federation in fact supported the creation of a Greater Serbia. This was Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s primary objective.

Because of the different views regarding the Yugoslav crisis, Europe opted to do nothing.  Outside states were content to monitor the situation, which essentially aided the Yugoslav federation’s goals.  It saw the crisis as an internal problem that did not require the involvement of foreign intermediaries. In other words, Europe subordinated the principle of self-determination to the principle of non-intervention. Things began to change, however, in the fall of 1991.  Germany, Austria and the Vatican began to lobby for recognition of Slovenia and Croatia.[vi] They saw these two young democracies within their sphere of interest and for historical reasons they decided to react to the obvious occupation of Croatian territory. This change in attitude opened the way to independence for the other Yugoslav republics. Bosnia and Herzegovina announced it would seek independence on 20 December 1991, but Bosnian Serbs were adamant that they would not accept such a step.

The Brussels Declaration on Yugoslavia of 17 December 1991, based on the recommendations of the International Arbitration Commission, chaired by Robert Badinter, declared that the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was dissolved. Accordingly, the Declaration encouraged the former republics to seek independence before 23 December 1991.[vii] The short timeline existed because many nations already announced their intentions to recognize these newly independent states.  The Declaration promised all six republics that the international community would recognize them no later than 15 January 1992. Three days before the deadline, a coalition of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA – Stranka demokratske akcije) and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ – Hrvatska demokratska zajednica) filed the required independence application.  On 21 December 1991, the Assembly of the Serbian people decided on the foundation of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On 25 January 1992, the Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina called for an independence referendum, which the Bosniacs’ SDA and Croatian’ HDZ also supported. The Serbian Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, did not participate in the process because the Serbs had established the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 9 January 1992.[viii]

Bosnia and Herzegovina held an independence referendum on 29 February and 1 March 1992.[ix] Since they did not support independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic Serbs did not participate in the referendum. According to democratic procedure and practice, the referendum was conducted lawfully and 63% of people had participated. The result was encouraging for the Bosniacs and Croats - 98% voted for independence. However, the outcome further radicalized ethnic Serbs, which constituted about 31% of the population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They refused to recognize the results of the referendum. This polarized B-H even further and exacerbated the animosity between the two parallel political entities. The Bosniacs and Croats on one side and the Serbs on the other began to develop their own political structure in a situation in which the Presidency of the rump Yugoslavia (without Croatia and Slovenia) still had authority over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yugoslav military commanders with about 80,000 members of the Yugoslav People’s Army stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina implemented orders that came from "General Staff" in Belgrade.[x]

Despite the commitment of the majority of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s citizens to Bosnia and Herzegovina independence, the President of Yugoslavia still behaved as if the situation was an internal conflict giving the Yugoslav People’s Army the freedom of action necessary to wage war against the new government in Bosnia and Herzegovina. President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina had been addressing the issue of an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina and it remaining within Yugoslavia. His vague political statements generated greater confusion and deepened the political crisis. The most famous of his statements was, ‘This is not our war’ by which he announced the neutrality of Bosnia and Herzegovina in a situation where the Yugoslav People’s Army had already waged war on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina against the Croats.[xi]

For Croats residing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the war started in the first half of October 1991 when the Yugoslav People's Army attacked Ravno and other Croatian villages in Eastern Herzegovina.  For the Muslims, the war against the Yugoslav People’s Army began on 6 April 1992, following international recognition of the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina.[xii]

The importance and influence of Islamic countries in Bosnia and Herzegovina grew after a peace conference in Istanbul from 17-18 June 1992. Foreign ministers of 15 countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference supported the Turkish position on the need to take action against the Serbian aggressors. Turkish Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin unreservedly supported the policy of Alija Izetbegovic.  He also had the support of the United States, a leading member of NATO. Cetin contributed to the status of Turkey as a regional power without which there would be impossible to resolve the crisis and conflicts in the Balkans. Ending the war between Croats and Bosniacs in February 1994 was also a result of the diplomatic efforts of Minister Cetin who, along with Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic, was committed to stopping this unnecessary conflict. This truce served as the basis for a strategic turnaround in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian war. Turkey became one of the major participants of the peace mediation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including its role with the Dayton Agreement.

Portrait of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Beginning of the War

The fall of communism and the collapse of Yugoslavia ended the deliberate policy of creating an artificial Yugoslavian nation that in essence embodied system of privileges that supported the Yugoslavian communist elites. In fact, only 14% of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared themselves as Yugoslavs in 1989.[xiii] It certainly was not the result of free will of citizens but rather an expression of opportunists seeking a better starting point for their own advantage. However, according to data from the Bosnia-Herzegovinian’s State Institute of Statistics, 1991, only 5.5% of the citizens have declared themselves as Yugoslavs. This trend was the logical consequence of the national gatherings, which took place in 1990 during the campaign for the first multi-party elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the Election Day, 18 November 1990, citizens finally said what they thought about totalitarian Yugoslav communist regime, giving their votes to the national parties. Three parties won the elections convincingly: the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). However, none had a democratic tradition and each focused primarily on getting the support of its own people.  The issue of a coexistence model based on different ethnicities and religions remained in the background.  All of the rhetoric promoted democratic values of equality, consensus, open markets, peaceful transformation and other democratic values, but in reality, each of the three winning parties sought their own solutions for their own interests. All three parties were unprepared for a multi-party system and resolving political-economic problems through multi-ethnic talks and agreements. Therefore, Snyder was right when he stated, ‘the result of political liberalization, without the existence of civil society institutions on which it could rely in order to support the process, is in incomplete democratization which causes an increased risk of civil war.’[xiv]

Ethnic homogenization in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 90s was not only a manifestation of various nationalistic clashes but also a natural release of patriotic and religious feelings of citizens that the repressive communist apparatus had successfully subdued for decades. The communists ignored the interests and rights of the people, and the careerists sought and secured promotion by suppressing nationalistic feelings. Accustomed to control, power, and influence, these careerists became the leaders of the national parties. Pursuing their own survival model, they skillfully switched from a communist platform to advancing a nationalist platform. This switch offered them a wide range of options. Realizing that they embraced nationalism more vigorously than communism, no one asked why they had previously declared themselves as Yugoslavs. Unaccustomed to compromise, the elitist cadres to whom exclusivity was inherent, generated even more dramatic confrontations and conflicts. The true ambitions of the 'newly-composed democratic elite’ was to use the existing crisis to maintain power and influence, rather than to peacefully resolve political problems and democratize society. This was a very easy task since the affected populations were confused and disoriented.

For example, the citizens of Sarajevo attempted to stop the conflict through protests.  They carried banners with symbols and shouted ‘Tito’ against the JNA. Obviously, they did not yet understood how the Serb-dominated Army supported the Bosnian Serbs in the fight against central authorities in Sarajevo.

The words of an individual who happened to be engaged in Bosnian-Herzegovinian War further illustrate the dilemma. ‘I am a Croat ... I was Yugoslavian, and now I am a Croat. I always knew that I am a Croat, but I did not feel it so much. Now, you have to be Croat, Serb, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever ... For me personally, these identities did not interest me at all: my being a Croat origination was not important. But now, you have to be.’[xv] Another Bosnian explained it more succinctly. ‘Before this crisis I did not even know if I was a Serb or a Croat.’[xvi]

The Causes of Inter-Ethnic Conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina

It is pointless to argue that ‘violent ethnic conflict is the result of a complex interaction of incitement and occasional opportunities.’[xvii] The causes of an inter-ethnic conflict are too numerous. ‘The scientific debate about the likelihood of the outbreak of civil wars should be viewed in two categories: inter-ethnic and non-inter-ethnic civil wars.’[xviii] The cause of inter-ethnic wars is ethnic heterogeneity, while the cause of non-ethnic wars may not be ethnic heterogeneity. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was not only inter-ethnic, but also a multidimensional war complicated by social, political, religious, cultural, and other factors such as property rights and territorial administration issues. Although ethnic divisions existed before the outbreak of hostilities, they gained momentum with Serb-Montenegrin aggression and the consequent expansion of the war across the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Conventional analysis that emphasizes the influence of geography on the genesis and development of inter-ethnic armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be viewed in the context of the involvement of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Croatia in this war. Neither country had clearly defined political-strategic intentions nor a defined military objective but each hesitated to make critical decisions in a timely manner. Each nation tried to avoid conflict and pursued the easiest path.

Some authors emphasize terrain characteristics that suggest relevant factors in predicting the outbreak of an armed conflict,[xix] but that was not dominant a factor in the Balkans. This is primarily a case of institutional and political change on the rocky road from totalitarianism to democratization. These changes generated internal instability and easily led to civil war. Groups that oppose a new socio-political system tried take advantage of its acquired position, especially if they feel that they will lose their dominant role and social status. Some argue that the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be seen as conventional civil war because of the use of larger conventional military operations for the control of military factories in Central Bosnia between 1993 and 1994.’[xx] However, examples of conventional fighting between the warring parties did not represent the essence and character of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It lasted nearly four-years and within that period the form, character, and nature of the actors changed. Local alliances that were often connected with the black market shaped the character of the war. The war also included cases of atrocities, ethnic cleansing, senseless destructive ventures, international forces without a clear mandate, the involvement of neighboring countries, and the noticeable influence of Islamist fighters who came in the Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to lead a holy war or Jihad.

The emergence of these Islamist groups and their conservative beliefs contributed to the chaos and confusion associated with the character of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian war. Joining the Bosniacs were citizens of Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait, Libya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. These jihadists considered a holy war as their duty, fighting in accordance with Allah's path against the infidels, the enemies of Allah. ‘These groups were mostly followers of the Salafi learning, particularly in Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar, and parts of Central Bosnia.’[xxi] ‘Salafi is global jihad movement, which combines a radical and puritanical interpretation of Islam with the use of deadly terrorist operations. The ultimate goal of the movement is to re-establish past Muslim glory in a great Islamist state.’[xxii] In Bosnia-Herzegovina, their presence altered the conflict’s character. First, they fought the Orthodox Serbs, but consequently they fought Catholic Croats even more rigorously. Reliable data on the number of these foreign fighters who fought in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not obtainable, but this figure is likely between 2000 and 4000. ‘Already in 1993 the Muslim foreign fighters were recognized the official status when the unit “Al Mujahedeen” was established and formally incorporated in the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.’[xxiii] ‘It is believed that during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina about 200 Islamist fighters - mujahedeen were killed.’[xxiv] Some of the jihadist fighters were married to local Muslim girls and remained in B-H, but ‘after the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 the majority was expelled because of strong pressure from the United States.’[xxv]

Analysts have typically ignored the Republic of Croatia’s significant role in the mediation on the arrival of these warriors in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nevertheless, their arrival did not calm tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but their presence exacerbated the intensity of the inter-ethnic conflict. Therefore, this internationalized civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was also a form of transnational religious war or jihad and therefore an ideological conflict.

Phases of the War

Phase 1 - Serbian-Montenegrin Aggression Against Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina

This phase began in early October 1991, when the Yugoslav People’s Army attacked Croat villages in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and lasted until 6 April 1992 when Bosnia-Herzegovina received recognition as an independent nation. The Yugoslav People’s Army was an aggressor.  It conducted pre-planned military operations in coordination with paramilitary units of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These operations also included a volunteer unit from Serbia that served as an instrument of ethnic cleansing. Most of the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina fought for formal unification with the Republic of Serbia (then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, consisting of Serbia and Montenegro). At this stage, the Muslims (Bosniacs) refused to recognize JNA aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina. This period is considered to be the preliminary phase of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it also included occasional JNA reservists’ attacks on Muslim community.[xxvi]

Phase 2 - Internal Secession of the Bosnian Serbs

The common defense of Croats and Bosniacs characterizes this phase, and it lasted from the recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina until the outbreak of the Croatian-Muslim war in Central Bosnia at the beginning of 1993. Having lost its legitimacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Yugoslav People’s Army became the Army of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.  By the end of May 1992, it officially withdrew from Bosnia and Herzegovina. But this withdrawal of the armed forces was incomplete. They left much of the military equipment and weapons with the ethnic Serbs who continued to use these weapons in the fight against Bosniacs and Croats. The fighting intensified in April and May 1992 as the direct result of recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an independent state.

Phase 3 - Full Interethnic Conflict

The war between Croats and Bosniacs broke out in late 1992 and lasted until 1 March 1994 when the Washington Treaty was signed. During this period, the idea of a multi-ethnic and multicultural Bosnia and Herzegovina completely disappeared. Ethnic cleansing occurred and concentration camps appeared.  The country remained divided along national-religious lines. When the inter-ethnic boundary line had been stabilized, it stopped larger clashes, but trade on the black market started to develop. The latter led to a Muslim-on-Muslim conflict in the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia, which the 5th Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina eventually resolved.

Phase 4 - Re-alliance Against the Serbs

Under the pressure from the United States, the Washington Agreement brought military and political advantages to the Croats and Bosniacs. Militarily weakened and partially defeated, the Bosnian Serbs signed the Dayton Agreement that led to the conclusion of the war in November 1995.

Through all the war’s phases, different ‘war games’ emerged.  These included political and diplomatic action as well as bilateral black market trading and criminal activity. The only dominant continuity that took place throughout the duration of the war relates to the rebellion and secession by the Bosnian Serbs. Other forms of warfare were fluid and local tactical needs and events determined what type of warfare ensued. Croatian official policy advocated the preservation of Bosnia and Herzegovina through an alliance with the Bosniacs-Muslims. However, a local incident provoked the Muslim-Croatian war. The main reason for this was not in any alleged hidden desire of the Croats to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina, but resulted from the vast influx of Bosniac refugees expelled by the Serbs.[xxvii]

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman sought as early as 12 July 1992 to establish political-military cooperation between the Republic of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Zagreb, he made an agreement on the alliance and friendship with Alija Izetbegovic by which he intended to establish a combined military command of the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) and the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unfortunately, in November 1992, the agreement collapsed, and in beginning of 1993, a Croatian-Muslim war emerged in central Bosnia.[xxviii]

Character of the War

‘War is an act of human communication. We say, therefore, that the war does not belong in the area of arts and sciences, but in the area of social life. This is a major conflict of interest that is handled in blood, and only in that it differs from the others.’[xxix] The war evolved in a political environment in which leaders motivated and engaged their targeted population.

The 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina serves as an ideal paradigm for today's military commanders. They must accept new challenges and expand their perceptions. They must switch from the conceptual two-dimensional awareness of time and space to a multidimensional understanding of the theatre of war. Today's adversaries work within a complex, inter-connected operational environment, and they have a very dynamic and flexible set of choices. Today’s enemies use all available means, employ deception, and they always seem to be one-step ahead.

As a case in point, the regime change in Bosnia and Herzegovina simply could not occur without war. A successful democratic transition occurs in a mature democratic setting as a planned collective project with the appropriate control measures and punishments. However, if it happens within an atmosphere of threats and blackmail, then it is very likely that emotions will intensify and end with armed conflict.

The Bosnia and Herzegovina independence referendum occurred in such surroundings.  Despite the internationally sanctioned process, the institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina encountered paralysis and the result was armed conflict rather than a democratic parliamentary system. Without a doubt, this was suggested at a meeting of the Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 14 October 1991 when a discussion of independence occurred and when the Serbian delegates walked out in protest. All relevant political actors simply were not yet ready to conduct political dialogue, but they resorted to the satisfying the perceived interests of their own peoples. As Andrew Wimmer et al observed, ‘Political exclusion and disregard for the political rights of some national groups lead to a civil conflict.’[xxx]

The war included a dark and a mysterious negotiations process regarding the political and administrative reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This process often excluded third parties involved in the conflict. Of course, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina may be characterized in some stages as a conventional war, but essentially this was more of an irregular war.[xxxi]  It is difficult to determine exactly where irregular war ends and the conventional (regular) starts, but it could be said that the irregular war is warfare conducted by forces other than the regular army of a belligerent force.[xxxii] The regular and irregular aspects of the war should be seen as two parts of the same activity. The irregular character of this war consisted of two categories of irregular warfare. These included a military coup and rebellion. The classic military coup included the kidnapping the President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the interruption of telephone lines by the Yugoslav National Army in Sarajevo on 1-2 May 1992. The ethnic Serbs mounted a rebellion against the newly established government of an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Theoretical Framework

As Stahis Kalyvas observed, ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina's war could be described as a ‘symmetrical unconventional’ type of warfare because it is characterized by a mixing regular (conventional) and irregular forces fighting in territory defined by clear lines of battlefields and within political context that is shaped by the collapse of the state.’[xxxiii] Such wars generally produce a high level of violence, as the Bosnia-Herzegovina war did.  Yet, due to a significant change in the character of the conflict and the actors involved, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina could not be classified solely as a symmetrical unconventional conflict.

The inherent challenge in classifying wars as conventional or irregular led to a new concept - ‘hybrid war.’ ‘Hybrid wars embody a wide range of different methods of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts involving non-discriminatory violence and coercion, and criminal outrages.’[xxxiv] This definition best captures the nature and character of the Bosnia-Herzegovina’s war that occurred between 1992 and 1995.

Another interesting consideration about modern war came from two Chinese military officers. They coined the term ‘unrestricted warfare.’ Their definition addressed the complexity, interdisciplinary and multi-dimensionality of modern warfare.[xxxv] Modern war, therefore, imposes requirements and skills that most warriors are inadequately prepared to accomplish.   War is actually won away from traditional battlefields.  Noting the unique features associated with the new age wars, some authors introduced a new category of ‘New Wars.’[xxxvi] These are wars accompanied by ethnic cleansing, widespread waves of refugees, extensive sexual violence and transnational criminal aspects. These traits were evident in the Bosnia and Herzegovina War. However, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was primarily a struggle of three national identities. Each sought to maintain and sustain its own ethnic identity, and since this was nothing new, it cannot be classified solely as so-called ‘New War.’

Australian researchers have emphasized the growing complexity of the nature of the operational environment, especially the presence of a large number of civilians, densely populated urban areas, and complex information activities. They based their basic concept of ‘Complex Warfare’[xxxvii] on a trilogy of ‘the field.’ These three fields included physical terrain, human terrain and the information terrain. This concept also includes diffusion or blurring of the types of conflict, combatants and non-combatants, and war and peace conditions. Since the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina did not include a developed information dimension (beside well-known media interpretations and manipulations), it cannot fall into this concept of warfare.

Underlying new theories of the Russian thinking on hybrid warfare were summed up by General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, who simply stated that ‘the future wars have a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace.‘ The Russian new doctrine (2014) accuses the US/NATO of practicing all the instruments of power (diplomacy, information, military, and economic) and see that the military instrument per se plays only a limited role in this concept.[xxxviii] Therefore, hybrid warfare employs military/non-military assets and methods in order to achieve political and strategic success. Such activities may include, but are not limited to: protecting target population, encouraging local disturbances, using irregular forces, exploiting humanitarian measures, performing criminal acts, currying out overt and covert operations, spreading narrative and propaganda, undertaking conventional attacks…, all of this in a highly integrated and combined plan. This strategy represents what was experienced during the Bosnia and Herzegovina War 1992/95.

The Categorization of War

In the Correlates of War (COW)[xxxix] database, ‘a civil war is defined as a war that includes at least one non-state group that participates in an armed conflict against the state resulting in at least 1,000 killed.’[xl] A civil war is different from other forms of irregular warfare in that that it often crosses the threshold between conventional and irregular warfare. What makes it unconventional is the fact that the conflict occurs within a defined national territory with the participation of two or more factions.[xli]

Sambanis used an expanded definition of civil war that enabled him to draw further conclusions. He based his definition of a civil war on ‘six criteria:

  1. The war has caused more than 1,000 deaths in connection with the fight;
  2. The sovereignty of internationally recognized states has been called into question;
  3. It takes place within the recognized boundaries of that state;
  4. It includes the state as one of the main parties in the struggle;
  5. It includes the rebels with ability to run the organized resistance; and
  6. It includes parties who were not satisfied with the proposal of co-existence in the same political unit after the war.’[xlii]

According to the COW definition, wars within a state (intra-state wars) are categorized as ‘internationalized’ when one or more countries intervene in the war.  It should be noted that the current typology of wars is a result of change to the previous traditional typology that stressed two types of war – international and civil wars.

Because of the periodic systematization of all wars to new criteria, some of the wars shifted from one category to the other. Criteria can also be changed and they are defined in the ‘COW database.’ Additionally, the database provided a list of transformed wars. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina transformed from ‘Wars between states’ and ‘The War of Independence’ (7 April 1992 – 13 May 1992) to ‘The wars in the state’ and ‘the rebellion of Bosnian Serbs’ (14 May 1992 – 31 December 1994). This categorization becomes even more complex when the criterion of direct participants in the war (the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Srpska, Serbian paramilitaries, the Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna, Croatian irregulars, and the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia), forged local alliances, and involved neighboring countries (the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Croatia) is included.

The primary classification of wars will certainly continue to change; however, when it comes to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina it is important to emphasize its initial aggressive character. Serb-Montenegrin aggression on Bosnia and Herzegovina should be emphasized when determining the appropriate terminology and criteria for determining this type of war.  The war was a civil war after the withdrawal of the troops of the Yugoslav People's Army from Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Some of these troops stayed and became a paramilitary unit of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


A definitive critical analysis of the Bosnia and Herzegovina war, regardless of the terminology and expressions used, will always remain fragmentary, subjective and incomplete. Historical events surrounding the B-H War cannot be changed but they should be viewed in the proper perspective, and that perspective should acknowledge the role of the Yugoslav People's Army. The Serb-dominated army was not a quiet observer in the democratic processes after 1991. Rather, it chose to intervene and to play a major role in the future of the region. By becoming an exponent of the Greater Serbia policy, it corrupted the democratic aspirations of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as of other republics of the former Yugoslavia. Systematic emphasis on the ethno-nationalist character of this war overshadowed the crucial role of this state actor that the U.S., the European governments, and the world’s security and defense agencies should have stopped, but did not. The collapse of communist regimes in Europe and the dismantling of the bipolar world were certainly two great victories for the democratic world, but the lack of timely and effective security arrangements in Bosnia and Herzegovina was a defeat. Therefore, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina became inevitable.

Today, it is important to establish a more holistic basis to understand this war more fully. Historians and international relations specialists should refer to the war by its real name and its true character. The international community was highly bureaucratized and ineffective regarding the crises and the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This conflict was more than a war for independence or a civil war.  It was an internationalized civil war and, due to its complex character, it was a hybrid war.  If military professional and political leaders are to be successful in resolving conflict, they must adhere to Clausewitz’s famous dictum that one must first know what kind of war they are fighting.  Had the international community understood the character of the B-H war, perhaps thousands of lives could have been saved while fostering a smoother transition to statehood following the dissolution of the Yugoslav Republic.

End Notes

[i] Bosniacs represent an ethnic Muslim population in Bosnia and Herzegovina that is different from the term Bosnian that is associated with territorial identification.

[ii] Mearsheimer John J (Summer 1990) Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War. International Security 15(1): 5-56

[iii] Snyder, Jack L (2000) From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 10–12.

[iv] New York Times (1991) 22 June: A1, A4

[v] Thucydides (431 B.C.) The History of the Peloponnesian War

[vi] The turning point occurred in the night from 16 to 17 December 1991 when at a meeting of Foreign Ministers in Luxembourg, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany Hans Dietrich Genscher with the support of Chancellor Helmut Kohl won over first the French and then the UK. Then, with the help of Denmark and Belgium, it was decided to recognize Croatia with a month’s delay, during which Zagreb agreed to accept peacekeeping forces, a cease-fire and the Constitutional Law on the protection of minorities. Magaš, Branka & Žanić, Ivo (1999) Rat u Hrvatskoj i Bosni i Hercegovini 1991-1995 (War in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina 1991-1995). Jasenski and Turk. Zagreb, 148.

[vii] According to the findings of the Badinter Commission verified by the European Community, Yugoslavia ceased to exist by dissolution (disintegration), and not by secession (separation) of individual states, what practically means that the so-called Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) was a new state with equal rights and obligations as well as four other successors (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia), and that any newly created state in the former Yugoslavia was not recognized the right on continuity. In other words, all states that emerged in the former Yugoslavia had the status of successor states, relatively; no one had the status of a country- predecessor, according to the Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of State Property, Archives and Debts, of 1983 and in relation to the contracts off 1978. Begić, Kasim I (1996) Bosna i Hercegovina od Vanceove misije do Daytonskog sporazuma (Bosnia and Herzegovina from Vance Mission to Dayton Agreement). Bosanska knjiga. Sarajevo, 35.

[viii] Sančević, Zdravko (1998) Pogled u Bosnu (View in Bosnia). Naprijed. Zagreb, 128.

[ix] The referendum question was ‘Are you for a sovereign and independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, a state of equal citizens, peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina - Muslims, Serbs, Croats and members of other nations living in it?’ Čekić, Smail (1994) Agresija na Bosnu i genocid nad Bošnjacima 1991-1993 (The aggression on Bosnia and genocide against Bosniacs 1991-1993). Sarajevo, 312.

[x] Branson Louise (1992) Yugoslav troops capture Bosnian leader, Sunday London Times, 3 May: 15 (Sarajevo, 2 May 1992, when Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović was kidnapped, regional JNA Commander Kukanjac telephoned Belgrade for guidance).

[xi] Lučić, Ivica ( 2013) Uzroci rata: Bosna i Hercegovina od 1980 do 1992 (Causes of the War: Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1980 to 1992). Despot Infinitus d.o.o., Hrvatski institute za povijest. Zagreb.

(TV Sarajevo, Alija Izetbegović’s TV appearance on 6 October 1991)

[xii] Malcolm, Noel (1995) Povijest Bosne (Bosnia: A Short History). Erasmus. Gilda. Novi Liber. Dani. Zagreb–Sarajevo, 385.

[xiii] Sekulić, Duško; Massey, Garth & Hodson, Randy (1994) Who were the Yugoslavs? Failed sources of a common identity in the former Yugoslavia. American Sociological Review 59(1): 89

[xiv] Snyder, Jack L (2000).  From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict. New York: Norton. 

[xv] Fahy, Michael & Mogul, Jonathan (1995) An Interview with Lidija Fekeza: An Archeologist in Sarajevo: Culture Under Siege. The Journal of the International Institute 3(1)

[xvi] McGeough, Paul (1991) Fortress of Fear: First Battleground of a Civil War? Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May.

[xvii] Sambanis, Nicholas (2005) Understanding Civil Wars: Evidence and Analysis: Africa v.1, U.S. World Bank, 329.

[xviii] Sambanis, Nicholas (2001) Do Ethnic and Non-ethnic Civil Wars Have the Same Causes? Journal of Conflict Resolution, 45(3): 259-282.

[xix] Fearon, James D & Laitin, David D (2003) Ethnicity, insurgency, and civil war. American Political Science Review, 97(1): 75–90

[xx] Kalyvas, Stathis N & Balcells, Laia (2010) International system and technologies of rebellion: How the end of the Cold War shaped internal conflict. American Political Science Review, 104(3): 415–490.

[xxi] For additional information on political Islam in general, see the report ‘Izvještaj Krizne grupe sa Bliskog istoka/Sjeverne Afrike br. 37, Razumijevanje islamizma’ (Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa no. 37, Understanding Islamism), 2 March 2005.

[xxii] Shultz, Richard H & Dew, Andrea J (2006) Insurgents, terrorists, and militias: the warriors of contemporary combat. New York, Columbia University Press, 260

[xxiii] Review of the verdict of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, in the case against General Rasim Delić (IT-04-83). On 15 September 2008, Delić was sentenced to three years in prison for ‘cruel treatment that violet the law and customs of war’ because he did not prevent the events in Livada and Kamenica Camp in July and August 1995. (Delić died on 16 April 2010, at his home, where he was on provisional release awaiting resolution of his appeal.)

[xxiv] Of the 3000 Arab volunteers in Bosnia and Herzegovina about 200 were killed, among them many veterans of the Afghan war. Who are these dead fighters and where are their graves, for the first time to the public told us Aiman Awad, president of the Association of the naturalized 'Ansar' citizens and a former member of the Al Mujahedeen unit. – ‘Their graves are all over the place ... Some were buried at Mehurići near City of Travnik, some in Grm near City of Zenica, and some in Livade near City of Zavidovići. The bodies of about fifty of them were never found.’ Awad told us, and when we asked about sashes and medals, that caused him to light laughter. ‘Sashes and memorials, we have never asked for, so that they does not exist, the same as the names on the graves. Fighters of the Al Mujahedeen unit did not come here for glory or to be buried in shrines.’ ( – accessed on 30 October 2014

[xxv] NATO forces on 16 February 1996 raided the so-called terrorist camp near Pogorelice in Central Bosnia, where according to some reports Iranians trained Bosniacs’ Special Forces. Several Bosniacs’ officials have said that this was ordinary camp for police training. Globalni terorizam i/li čaršijska osveta (Global terrorism and/or town’ square revenge), Dani, 19 April 2002. Crisis Group interviews, local and international officials in the field of security, Sarajevo, September-November 2012.

[xxvi] Eighteenth century Ljubović Mosque in the village of Odžak, eastern Herzegovina, was blown up during the night 23-24 September 1991; Historic Town Mosque in Tuzla was attacked on 13 October 1991; At least two attacks on the sixteenth century Osman Pasha Mosque in Trebinje on 22 October 1991 and 25 January 1992. (International Court of Justice the Hague (2006) Public sitting held on 17 March at the Peace Palace (CR 2006/22) in the case concerning the Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro – expert Andras Riedlmayer): 19-20.

[xxvii] ‘Instead of liberating their own area of Serbs, Muslim politicians and military commanders have decided to conquer the Croatian villages ...’ Ilić, Fr. Ivan Ž (2000) Medijski rat u Bosni i Hercegovini: Odgovornost novinara u ratu (The media war in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The responsibility of journalists in war). Zbornik: 79.

[xxviii] ‘I was personally initiator and engaged the government of Turkey, and we have achieved with her full consent on how we should affect to come to such cooperation between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, we do not have such results that we want. On 12 July last year, I signed an agreement in Zagreb with Izetbegović in which it was also a clause on military cooperation in the border areas, but then they did not accept our proposal on military alliance. From the beginning until today, we listened first that Serbian aggression against Croats is not their war, and to the statements of some of their leaders that they are even a part of the Serbs and that they were mistaken in trying a covenant with us. This was said then by one of the main people in that leadership.’  (Opening speech of Croatian President dr. Franjo Tudjman at the Second general assembly of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in the concert hall "Lisinski" in Zagreb on 15 October 1993).

[xxix] Clausewitz, Karl von (2010) O ratu. (On war) Zagreb. Mozaik knjiga: 91.

[xxx] Wimmer, Andreas; Cederman, Lars E & Min, Brian (2009) Ethnic Politics and Armed Conflict: A Configurational Analysis of a New Global Data Set. American Sociological Review 74(2).

[xxxi] Irregular warfare is defined as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. IW favours indirect and asymmetric approaches, although it can use the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to undermine the opponent's power, influence, and will. What makes irregular warfare different is the focus of its operations - a relevant population - and its strategic purpose - to gain or maintain control or influence over, and support of, that relevant population. Joint Staff, (June 2007) Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, Washington, DC: 6-7.

[xxxii] Allen, W E D (1943) Guerrilla War in Abyssinia, New York, Penguin Books, 18.

[xxxiii] Kalyvas, Stathis N (2005) Warfare in Civil Wars. In Rethinking the Nature of War. ed. Angstrom, Jan & Abingdon, Isabelle D. Oxon. Frank Cass, 88

[xxxiv] Following the first public use of this term by General Mattis, on 8 September 2005, at the Forum of Defense sponsored by Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association, the concept was presented by Lieutenant General Mattis, James N (US Marine Corps) & Hoffman, Frank G (November 2005) Future Warfare: The Rise of Hybrid Warfare. Naval Institute Proceedings: 30-32; Hoffman, Frank G (Summer 2006) Complex Irregular War: The Next Revolution in Military Affairs. Orbis: 413-430; Hoffman Frank G (March 2007) How the Marines are Preparing for Hybrid Wars. Armed Forces Journal International, and Hoffman, Frank G (April 2006) Preparing for Hybrid Wars. Marine Corps Gazette.

[xxxv] Qiao, Liang & Xiangsui, Wang  (1999) Unrestricted Warfare, Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House: 153

[xxxvi] Kaldor, Mary  (1999). New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 6, Münkler, Herfried (2005). The New Wars, Malden, MA: Polity Press, 5-31

[xxxvii] Australian Army. Complex Warfighting. Future Land Warfare Branch (2004). In 2005, this work is adopted as an official operational concept for Future Land Operational Concept of the Australian Army. Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen is the most important author of this concept.

[xxxviii] Gerasimov, Valery (2014) Voyennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii, Tsennost’ Nauki i Predvidenie (The Value of Science and Foresight), December 26.

[xxxix] ’Correlates of War - COW’ is a project that deals with comprehensive study of the phenomenon of war including all the wars since 1816.  Over time, the typology of wars has been modified in order to try to format all the variables needed for a comparative and comprehensive analysis of wars. (

[xl] Sarkees, Meredith R (2000) Correlates of War Warsets: An Update, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 18.

[xli] Jordan, David; Kiras, James D; Lonsdale, David J; Speller, Ian; Tuck, Christopher & Walton, Dale C (2008) Understanding Modern Warfare.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 237-238.

[xlii] Sambanis, Nicholas (2000) Partition as a Solution to Ethnic War: An Empirical Critique of the theoretical Literature. World Politics 52: 444.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Zdravko Matic is a Professor in the Military History Department at the Croatian Military Academy in Zagreb, Croatia. He was also a Professor at the Universities of Zadar and Osijek where he taught 20th Century World History and History of Middle and South-eastern Europe. His publications include War in the Republic of Croatia (2005) and ‘Aut catholicus aut nihil:’ blessed Dr. Ivan Merz (2013). He composed numerous analyses on Military Operations in Croatia and published more than 20 research articles.

Lieutenant Colonel Frano Stojic teaches Hybrid Operations in the Department of Tactics at the Croatian Military Academy in Zagreb, Croatia. He was also a lecturer in the Department of Military Arts, where he covered international operations, joint operational planning, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, and computer assisted exercises. He has enjoyed an almost 25 year military career and served as a National Contingent Commander in Afghanistan (2003/04). Currently, he has been working on two books (Insurgency and Counterinsurgency and Hybrid warfare) and is a doctor candidate in Croatology at the Canter for Croatian Studies of the University of Zagreb.