Diplomatic Bluff to Break Longest Modern Siege

Photo Credit: dailymotion.com

Sarajevo could have been liberated, rescued early into the siege; however too many EU and US political leaders either were acquiescent or resigned to what they viewed as the inevitable fall of the city that was defending religious/ethnic pluralism and the very values now under assault in Paris or Brussels from ISIS, and right wing demagogues. Sarajevo might have also quickly fallen except that its citizens resisted highly unbalanced odds with courage, innovation and persistence to counter the besiegers’ overwhelming military weapons superiority. While many expressed solidarity with or sympathy for Sarajevo, some of these Euro and US leaders were increasingly frustrated and embarrassed by the the images of a European wounded city that not only refused to die but clung to its humanity and culture in the face of brutality. Having outdistanced all predictions of its inevitable doom, Sarajevo even became the target of cynicism. Then Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd sought to suffocate hope by declaring to Bosnians that there would be “no cavalry riding to the rescue.” However, in the end, NATO did come to aid in lifting the siege, perhaps not so much out of principle or legality but because the consequences of the ongoing drama played out in the media covering Sarajevo evidenced its citizens no less European, cultured or deserving, as those more recently victimized by the siege of terror in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, London, Istanbul or, in 2001, NYC.


Betrayal of Sarajevo is a Lesson Lost?

The battle for the survival of Sarajevo deserves a much greater devotion than can be addressed in a short blog. It has been given too little attention by film makers and politicians, and its lessons and links to current ills still too often not comprehended. Those politicians who failed in their initial test to rescue Sarajevo then set into refashioning the story to reflect their own stereotypes and agendas. Many were also eager to escape the responsibility for allowing the longest modern siege of a city to perpetuate for almost four years, and no one could claim ignorance of either the suffering or the methodology of the siege. This April officially marks the 24 year anniversary of the start of the siege, generally associated with the killing of peace demonstrators seeking to avert conflict and soon thereafter the establishment of siege lines by the then Yugoslav National Army, which had already converted into a force under the dominion of Serbia’s ultra-nationalists including Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. As the later all have been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICTY), during the war they were sought out as negotiating partners by EU, US and UN diplomats. To rationalize negotiating with these exponents of a reborn violent chauvinism, these nationalist leaders were defined by labels of Serb ethnicity and their victims were largely identified as “Muslims.”


Claiming Religion as Motivation for Terror, but….

While it is true that Karadzic, Mladic, and others justified their crimes as being committed on behalf of European Christianity, many or most Serbs as well as Europeans were opposed if not repulsed by what was being done in their name. Similarly, while most of the victims were “Bosniaks” (the indigenous Slavic Muslims), there were also many Bosnian Croats (Catholics), “Others” and Serbs committed to the pluralistic Sarajevo and Bosnia that were targeted. Indeed, the greatest victim was the notion of coexistence and the diversity by which Bosnia & Herzegovina (“BiH”) had been enriched. Some of Sarajevo’s most notable defenders were its Croat and Serb citizens, (including General Jovan Divjak, Serb ethnically, who stemmed the initial Serbian tank charge into a vulnerable and lightly armed cosmopolitan.) It, however, may be more accurate to state that the first religion exploited to mask terrorism against a European metropolis since WW II was Karadzic and Mladic claiming to be acting on behalf of Christianity. (All other labelled terror prior whether by Palestinians or IRA or Red Brigades was done in name of nationalist or political ideology rather than religious identity.)


Defense of Body and Spirit:

The resistance of the city, in terms of commitment to survive physically but also culturally was as impressive as today’s demonstrations of solidarity against the terror in Paris or Brussels. I had the privilege as Foreign Minister and Ambassador to travel via the kilometer-long tunnel which was the only physical link to the outside world. Those who manned the tunnel and the winding Igman mountain road were as much as heroes as any army or special forces. Lives sacrificed and labor given selflessly have been too readily obscured by claims of some western political leaders that they saved Sarajevo.  Much thanks is due to outside benefactors who sought to remind a global audience of Sarajevo’s plight and those that helped the new Internet as well as water keep flowing. It was the “Sarajlije” (Sarajevo’s residents) though who deserve the credit for the city’s survival, from citizen-soldiers defending the walls to artists who sought to paint a future consistent with diversity and openness. The shelling by the besieging forces in the surrounding hills was more directed at the body and spirit of Sarajevo’s citizens then the ragtag defensive positions and bunkers – estimates of those killed, murdered are almost 14,000 including more than 1,500 children. Again, further evidence of the terror motive of the siege, the sniping and the shelling.


The Terror of Targeting Civilians:

The shelling of Markale marketplace on August 28, 1995, in violation of Sarajevo’s designation as not only a UN “safe area” but also NATO “protected zone” was not a particularly more notable atrocity in terms of the numbers of civilians killed and maimed. The victims were desperate shoppers seeking to feed families and neighbors in a city lacking most of the necessities of life. (I recall that when I entered the city in 1995 via the tunnel as BiH’s new Foreign Minister, from my Ministry staff to ordinary citizens, everyone was hungry and even emaciated, but still most sought to maintain dignity, from their neighborliness, civility to personal hygiene and presentation where water was a luxury – I had been coming regularly from November 1992 as BiH’s UN Ambassador and each entry into Sarajevo I noticed that the people were more thin and drawn but also determined. It weighed on me that after my stay in Sarajevo, that I would leave for a full meal and warm shower. To ease my sense of guilt I made it my obligation to carry in with me a couple of suitcases of food and clothing to hand out.)


Ambassador Richard Holbrooke leads the “American Initiative”

In August of 1995, the US had reluctantly taken leadership in seeking an end to the war, after serially being frustrated and embarrassed. For Bosnians and Herzegovinians this was a welcome change from the ineffective EU leaders, (particularly a bigoted and duplicitous French President Mitterrand and a crotchety UK PM John Major and his cynical FM Douglas Hurd.)  The role of personality was also critical as the ambitiously unbridled Richard Holbrooke would come out on top of the scrum to lead the “American Initiative,” as it became tagged. Ambassador Holbrooke and I had been in contact from the outset of the conflict. While Holbrooke represented and I think believed himself as a friend of BiH, the shared values between BiH’s new pluralistic democracy and the US as well as strategic interests were less evident to me in his orientation than the personal zeal to project himself as the indispensable mediator and poker player who would be credited with finally delivering peace, or at least an accord, and with such credit be recognized by the media, Nobel Committee and then President Bill Clinton as the next US Secretary of State.


Media as Diplomatic Card to be Played?

In early August of 1995, Ambassador Holbrooke and his team wanted to fly into Sarajevo to meet with the BiH Government team on the American Initiative, but could not secure safe passage from the besieging Serbian forces. I went out the tunnel and met with Holbrooke and his team on a US State Department plane in the Croatian city of Split. The meeting turned out more as a game of diplomatic poker. Holbrooke had first sought my agreement to surrender the eastern BiH town of Gorazde, (only remaining “safe area” enclave in eastern Bosnia after the UN and NATO failed to stop Mladic’s assault upon Srebrenica and Zepa.) After I refused, Holbrooke wanted me to tell the global media, waiting outside the plane, that he had not asked me to sacrifice Gorazde. I obliged but only to the point to state that Holbrooke had assured me that Gorazde would not be sacrificed. The media was not part of the diplomacy, but it had the effective role of being a card that could be played at this diplomatic table. Holbrooke was no less aware and more inclined to project himself in the limelight.

Former President Bill Clinton, who in private referred to him as “Ambassador Mo” wrote of Sacirbey in his book “My Life”: “Holbrooke and his team landed in the Croatian coastal city of Split, where they briefed the Bosnian foreign minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, on our plans. Sacirbey was the eloquent public face of Bosnia on American television, a handsome, fit man who, as a student in the United States had been a starting football player at Tulane University. He had long sought greater American involvement in his beleaguered nation and was glad the hour had finally come.”


Death of American Diplomats and Sarajevo Citizens:

A week later, Ambassador Holbrooke and his team again sought to meet with the entire BiH Government in Sarajevo. Once again though, they did not receive assurance of safe passage for their plane to land at presumably the UN controlled Sarajevo airport. Instead, they set out over Mount Igman where an APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) rolled off the mountain road with three of Holbrooke’s team killed, (Amb. Robert Frasure, Col. S. Nelson Drew, and Joseph Kruzel, not only Deputy Secretary of Defense for NATO and European Affairs but also cousin to my wife by marriage.) Instead of greeting Joseph and his companions, I identified his body with massive head injuries that caused his death.

As General Wes Clark, a part of the US negotiating team, worked diligently to secure transport out for the three dead Americans as well as get the horrendous news to their families, I met with what I perceived as a manic Holbrooke. He told me that the sacrifice, death of these three Americans was just more catalyst to secure success for a deal. Frankly I saw the moment as too premature to look beyond the death of these three Americans serving on behalf of country. Further, the suffering and killing of thousands of Bosnians and Herzegovinians, (including many who died defending and/or traveling the same lifeline to Sarajevo), over the previous 40+months was more than enough incentive to seek peace, even if the prospects appeared between impossible to flawed.

Within days I traveled to Washington to attend the funerals. It was also an opportunity to meet with US officials who were all eager for a diplomatic solution but clearly also with differences from Holbrooke regarding both the quality of any future agreement and even who may be welcome as a negotiating partner. Then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright as well as General Wes Clark looked beyond the immediate talks and wondered, as I, what type of peace and region would prevail if Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic and their scheme were left intact.


France Does not want to be in Shadow of US:

Paris was to be the next diplomatic stop in a frantic search for peace to meet with the new French President Jacques Chirac as well as a reassembled Holbrooke team. President Izetbegovic was traveling from Sarajevo via the tunnel and Split airport. As I arrived first in Paris, BiH’s Ambassador to France Nikola Kovac, (a Serb who was called a “traitor to the Serb peoples” by Francois Mitterrand because he supported the pluralistic Sarajevo rather than ultra-nationalist Serb forces), informed me that another horrific shelling had just occurred, the August 26 Markale bombing with many dead and maimed.

Meeting President Izetbegovic on the exit to the plane, visibly shaken he told me that he had been about to U-turn to Sarajevo from Split upon hearing of the Markale massacre. In the end though he had decided to come simply because the opportunity for peace could not be passed up. As we rode together from the airport to our hotel, I told him we must demand a response, both as Sarajevo was presumably protected by NATO and to move the lifting of the siege. President Izetbegovic replied that he thought such an ultimatum was not likely to deliver concrete action but gave me his blessing to go ahead. President Izetbegovic correctly surmised our hand as weak but one cannot bluff effectively, ever, if only willing to raise the stakes with only a very strong hand. I asked President Izetbegovic not to engage with Holbrooke until there was a NATO response as part of what I knew was ultimately our bluff.

President Izetbegovic saw diplomacy as deliberate conversation, bargaining, or at least where every offer had to be heard. However, by US and European diplomats he was too often perceived as a poor “diplomatic poker” player who would ultimately concede the weakness of his hand. Keeping President Izetbegovic away from the table was a tactical maneuver on my part, but it also played into exploiting Holbrooke’s eagerness to be seen as directing the diplomatic settlement for Bosnia.

As we approached our hotel, the media throng was already assembled in front. We were greeted at the door by Egypt’s then Foreign Minister, Amr Musa, (who would be Egypt Presidential candidate during the brief “Spring”). I asked him to accompany me to speak to the media, this time also highlighting the frustration of the “Muslim World” to the indifference to the plight of Bosnia, and to add some drama to a bluff which had a weak hand behind it. The linked video records the “Diplomatic bluff” in Paris to lift the siege of Sarajevo: (See: “France/Sacirbey Criticizes the West“)

As I entered my hotel room, Holbrooke was already waiting inside for me. I chuckled at his nerve, but he probably saw it as another means of trying to convince me that he was in charge. Holbrooke immediately asked if I had told the media that we would not participate in his, emphasis on “his”, negotiations if NATO did not respond to the Markale massacre. I answered that was correct. Holbrooke then said that we could not do that to which I replied that this was our position.


Did Holbrooke Convert my Diplomatic Bluff into his Diplomatic Currency with Pentagon & Europe?

Holbrooke left abruptly, and for some time I thought that I had successfully bluffed Holbrooke. In hindsight though, while personally less satisfying to me, the more probable narrative is that Holbrooke employed my bluff as his own to convince Pentagon officials and European allies that NATO must act this time. Thus, his diplomacy gained the necessary impetus of military engagement at a time when NATO as well as the EU and UN had lost the credibility of action or threat in the war in BiH.

That afternoon President Izetbegovic and I met with French President Chirac. He appeared ready to alter the course set by Mitterrand. Chirac understood that Europe’s failure in BiH had damaged the EU and apparent indifference was sending the wrong message to other Muslims in Europe in France, one that discouraged confidence and integration. Chriac was also eager not to look idle in the face of US led military action in BiH.

That night President Izetbegovic and I were to be guests of then US Ambassador Pamela Harriman. Of course Holbrooke would be there to take charge and direct the start of talks. I urged President Izetbegovic not to attend, at least not until NATO had responded. However, I did look to stack the conversation, the deck by inviting Bernard Henri Levy and Gilles Herzog, steadfast friends of Bosnia, (who also parted political ways with Mitterrand over his betrayal of European principles of inclusion exposing a bigotry dating back to Vichy.)

As the night wore on, Holbrooke eagerly awaited a phone call from Washington. When the call came finally, close to midnight, Holbrooke handed me the phone. On the other end, Strobe Talbott, US Deputy Secretary of State, informed me that within a few hours that I “would be satisfied by the NATO response.” Just in time, as President Izetbegovic would happen to stop by the US Embassy while taking a casual stroll from our nearby hotel.


“NATO Promise Delivered Upon” after “Terror upon Sarajevo”:

(See Video: “Bosnia/Sacirbey Welcomes NATO Raids“)

While the NATO air action had started, and was more than previous “pin pricks,” the outcome in terms of lifting the siege of Sarajevo was far from certain. This was not about punishment, although undoubtedly many in Sarajevo took satisfaction in the bombs dropping upon those who had inhumanely shelled them. Rather, it was about not only ending the shelling of Sarajevo but also the siege and thus urgently moving toward a return toward normalcy, stubborn in the face of betrayal and deprivation nonetheless, Sarajevo was exhausted from the struggle.


The Trigger Finger:

In the meantime, Holbrooke wanted to show that it was his finger on the trigger. Within just a couple of days of the start of NATO action and before Mladic’s besieging forces had made any gesture of withdrawal, Holbrooke agreed to Milosevic’s request to suspend the NATO air strikes. The following from the US State Department’s own official archive and record of events, “The Secret History of Dayton” :

“On the following day, August 31, the (Holbrooke’s) team left for Zagreb to meet with Croatian officials and Bosnian Foreign Minister Sacirbey. They announced Milosevic’s breakthrough announcement and some his initial bargaining positions. On Gorazde, Sacirbey remained firm that it be part of Federation controlled-territory….

The Bosnians were absolutely livid that the (NATO air) campaign had been halted. In a call to Talbott, Sacirbey said that fighting in and around Sarajevo was continuing and demanded that the air strikes be resumed immediately. At first, Talbott explained that the cessation had been called for technical military reasons. But as Sacirbey pressed him further, Talbott admitted that the pause had certain diplomatic benefits, although the US wanted to keep this secret. He reassured the Bosnian Foreign Minister that it was “not, repeat not, a rolling suspension…it is a limited one designed to permit a Mladic/Janvier (French general appointed by Mitterrand to BiH) meeting and to offer Mladic the opportunity to comply with all demands.” Yet to preserve NATO and the UN’s credibility, Talbott told Sacirbey that the bombing needed to be portrayed as a military effort, not merely a tool of diplomacy.”

(See video “ Croatia/US Bosnia Peace Plan Update“)

My concern at the time was two-fold: that Mladic was playing for time to seed reluctance and division within NATO and even Washington on continuing the NATO air campaign. Washington and allies would project victory even with something much less than the lifting of the siege. This concern was borne out in the reflection of US officials in the “Secret History of Dayton” (page 91):

“Despite the evidence that the Bosnian Serbs had refused to comply, there was considerable reluctance to resuming the bombing. Holbrooke later reflected that even though NATO military commander (and US General) Joulwan and (NATO Secretary General) Claes supported resumption, the UN military command “was looking for an excuse to avoid resumption of bombing.” What Holbrooke and others had once thought would be a clear-cut strategic decision had now become far less certain.”

What Ambassador Holbrooke had thought would evidence his control of the trigger, military and diplomatic, endangered the primary objective of lifting the siege of Sarajevo, and threatened to also make him look diplomatically impotent. Now we shared the same sense of urgency. On Sunday I flew to Brussels to meet with NATO head Claes. By the time our meeting ended that evening, the NATO air campaign had resumed. For both Holbrooke and myself, again the bluff of halting negotiations actually enabled diplomacy; and most critically, within 10 days Mladic made a retreat, removed most of the heavy weapons besieging Sarajevo and roads were re-opened entering the city.

The Final Casualty?

The last Bosnian victim of the assault upon Sarajevo was killed on January 6, 1996 even as the city was coming back to normal and its famous trams were back on track.  Mirsada Duric, 55, was riding the tram when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her. While the first official victims in 1992 were two young women, peace demonstrators, somehow I felt personal failure, despair when I heard of Ms. Duric’s death. On the morning of her death, did Mirsada finally dare look forward to a more optimistic future after having survived 4 years of siege and deprivation?

Sarajevo survived four years due to its citizens and defenders. NATO deserves credit for helping liberate the city from the siege, but it was BiH’s newly formed army that fought off countless assaults till then not having the weapons for a successful counter-offensive. The Dayton Accords, which should have been Sarajevo’s deliverance, now also clouds the future of the country and its capital, still delineated by the war of those who would have dismembered both. (See: The National Security Archive – “The Secret History of Dayton“)

Sarajevo saw itself as no different than today’s Paris, Brussels or NYC. However, it is not being treated as a victim of terror but rather the product of ethnic/religious conflict. That narrative may have been expedient for EU capitals two decades earlier but now it haunts the future of not only BiH but all of Europe. With all due respect though to the rest of the continent, few have evidenced the capacity to survive, the resilience and the commitment to civilization despite the wounds and betrayal inflicted – after all Sarajevo was the defense of presumably European and American shared values of tolerant, diverse and free society. Sarajevo remains true to its core even as both the current peace and memory of recent conflict remind of what was. The future has confirmed that Sarajevo was resisting the baser instincts and the ideologies or theologies such claim today.


By, Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey


“Miss Besieged Sarajevo” – “Don’t Let Them Kill Us”!

The call of “Miss Sarajevo” originally performed by unforgettable Luciano Pavarotti, Bono, U2 and Brian Eno (and filmed by Bill Carter), is a cry, a yearning to be seen not as victim but as all of us. The young women who participated in the Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant sought to remind the world but particularly Europe and America that stereotypes and numbers were a rationalization not to see the individual, beautiful lives being wasted by the ugliness of war.

(Watch YouTube Original Video:U2 & L Pavarotti/Miss Sarajevo“)


About the Author

Muhamed Sacirbey
Muhamed Sacirbey
Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey currently lectures on Digital-Diplomacy. "Mo" has benefited from a diverse career in investment banking & diplomacy, but his passion has been the new avenues of communication. He was Bosnia & Herzegovina's first Ambassador to the United Nations, Agent to the International Court of Justice, Foreign Minister & Signatory of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. He also played American football opting for a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans after being admitted to Harvard, oh well!!
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