The ‘tipping point’ for Srebrenica

A key question for anyone interested in genocide prevention is whether outside intervention can make a difference. In order to address this question, it is necessary to study the mindset of the perpetrators of mass atrocities. Thanks to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, we now have a lot of evidence about the Bosnian Serb decision-making ...

ICTY
ICTY
ICTY

A key question for anyone interested in genocide prevention is whether outside intervention can make a difference. In order to address this question, it is necessary to study the mindset of the perpetrators of mass atrocities. Thanks to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, we now have a lot of evidence about the Bosnian Serb decision-making process that led to the capture of the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica and the murder of around 7,000 Muslim men and boys.

According to Bosnian Serb military documents, and testimony from key participants, General Ratko Mladic did not initially intend to capture the town of Srebrenica when he launched his attack on the enclave on July 6, 1995. His initial goal was to reduce the enclave to its urban core and create "an unbearable situation" for Srebrenica inhabitants, forcing them to leave of their own accord. Meeting no effective resistance from either Dutchbat or the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica, he went for the big prize.

It is now possible to pinpoint the "tipping point" when everything changed: the evening of July 9. A written message was submitted for approval to Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic by a Mladic aide at 23:50 hours on July 9 ordering the final "takeover of Srebrenica". Mladic ordered his forces to move forward the following day, July 10, capturing a U.N. armored personnel carrier as you can see in the photograph at the top of this post. The "safe area" fell on July 11.

A key question for anyone interested in genocide prevention is whether outside intervention can make a difference. In order to address this question, it is necessary to study the mindset of the perpetrators of mass atrocities. Thanks to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, we now have a lot of evidence about the Bosnian Serb decision-making process that led to the capture of the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica and the murder of around 7,000 Muslim men and boys.

According to Bosnian Serb military documents, and testimony from key participants, General Ratko Mladic did not initially intend to capture the town of Srebrenica when he launched his attack on the enclave on July 6, 1995. His initial goal was to reduce the enclave to its urban core and create "an unbearable situation" for Srebrenica inhabitants, forcing them to leave of their own accord. Meeting no effective resistance from either Dutchbat or the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica, he went for the big prize.

It is now possible to pinpoint the "tipping point" when everything changed: the evening of July 9. A written message was submitted for approval to Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic by a Mladic aide at 23:50 hours on July 9 ordering the final "takeover of Srebrenica". Mladic ordered his forces to move forward the following day, July 10, capturing a U.N. armored personnel carrier as you can see in the photograph at the top of this post. The "safe area" fell on July 11.

U.N. military observers in Srebrenica warned their superiors in Sarajevo on the afternoon of July 9 that the "almost non-existent" U.N. response to the initial Bosnian Serb offensive against Srebrenica may have encouraged Mladic to "widen" his war aims. An official U.N. report on the Srebrenica fiasco subsequently concluded that the Serbs decided to overrun the entire enclave as a result of the "unexpected ease" of their early advance.

Further evidence that this was the case comes from the testimony of a Karadzic aide, Miroslav Deronjic, who met with the Bosnian Serb president on the evening of July 9. At this point (before receiving the 23:50 message from Mladic), Karadzic said there were "two options" for the Srebrenica operation. Plan A was for the reduction in size of the Srebrenica "protected zone." Plan B was for the capture of Srebrenica but that option was "tentative" and would only be adopted if it was "military doable."

When Deronjic asked Karadzic what would happen to the population of Srebrenica in the event of a Serb takeover, he received a chilling reply. "Miroslav, all of them need to be killed."

In other words, there was an understanding among the Bosnian Serb leadership that the fall of Srebrenica would result in mass slaughter. But the plan to capture the town was an opportunistic decision, taken at a relatively late date, because of the inadequacy of the U.N./NATO response. Dutchbat commanders in Srebrenica later identified July 9 as the "moment the scales tipped."

Later investigations established that NATO air power was not deployed against the Bosnian Serbs on July 9 primarily because Dutchbat commanders did not want to endanger the position of Dutch peacekeepers who had been taken hostage by the Serbs. A contributing factor was the belief that air strikes could jeopardize negotiations with the Serbs over other issues, including access to Sarajevo.

With hindsight, it was obviously a disastrous decision. Instead of becoming more reasonable, Mladic’s men became emboldened, as you can see from the Youtube clip of what happened the following day.

"Push it now," the Serb commander yells, on July 10, as he urges the shelling of the United Nations "safe area." "The NATO Pact cannot do anything to us!"

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.