From Srebrenica to Syria: How the US Replaced the UN as ‘World Police’
After President Donald Trump tweeted “missiles are coming,” the US, UK and France launched airstrikes on Syria. There was no international investigation of the alleged chemical attack, or UN authorization. How did it come to this?
The US likes to present itself as the foremost guardian of the “rules-based international order,” blaming Russia and China for flouting these rules or seeking to change them. Yet in practice it is Washington and its allies that trample on the rules at nearly every occasion. Friday’s strikes are but one example.
Earlier this week, US envoy Nikki Haley told the UN Security Council that Washington intended to act in Syria “with or without” the UN. Russia’s Vassily Nebenzia responded with a reminder that the UN has all too often been used as a fig leaf for Western military adventurism. He specifically cited the example of Libya in 2011, when UNSC Resolution 1973 that authorized a “no-fly zone” was used by NATO as a license for regime change.
George W. Bush flouted the UN entirely in 2003, when he invaded Iraq after basically telling the Security Council he intended to do so no matter what. Before that, Bill Clinton launched NATO’s 78-day war against Yugoslavia in 1999, also without bothering with the UN.
Such behavior would’ve seemed unimaginable in 1991, when the US made sure to have full Chapter VII UN authority to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. So what happened in those eight intervening years? For the answer to that, we must revisit the Bosnian War.
In early 1992, a political arrangement between Bosnia’s ethnic Serb, Croat and Muslim communities fell apart as Germany and the US backed the factions seeking independence. Open warfare broke out in March or April (depending on whom you ask) along ethnic and religious fault lines. Public relations firms in the West busily churned out accusations of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to push narratives about the war. Newly inaugurated US President Bill Clinton believed a combination of airstrikes and weapons shipments to the Bosnian Muslims (“lift and strike”) to be the solution.
Over the next three years, NATO gradually took over the leading role in the former Yugoslavia from the UN through a series of steps, the justification for each being ostensibly humanitarian grounds. Many of the details of this creeping usurpation were described by Phillip Corwin, the American who served as the UN political officer in Bosnia in 1995, in his memoir ‘Dubious Mandate.’
The process began earlier, however. On April 16, 1993, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 819, establishing the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia as a “safe area, free from any armed attack or any other hostile act.” The concept of “safe areas” was expanded on May 6, 1993, with Resolution 824 adding the cities of Sarajevo, Tuzla, Goražde and Bihać and the village of Žepa to the list. All were held by the Bosnian Muslims.
Aside from the thorny issue of openly siding with one of the factions in the war, the UN had a more practical problem: its mission in Bosnia (UNPROFOR) was in no way equipped to actually patrol or secure these areas, having been originally deployed to police the January 1992 armistice in the neighboring Croatia.
So the UN turned to NATO for enforcement. On April 12, 1993, NATO was asked to patrol the skies over Bosnia, enforcing the October 1992 resolution banning all military flights - ostensibly for humanitarian purposes. Operation Deny Flight served as NATO’s back door into the Bosnian War: the alliance’s first air engagement ever was in February 1994; the first-ever bombing mission followed in April.
Under US pressure, the Security Council passed Resolution 836 in June 1993, authorizing NATO to provide close air support for UNPROFOR upon request. Under the so-called “dual key” arrangement, any NATO strikes had to be authorized by civilian UN officials.
That requirement was removed in July 1995, after Bosnian Serb forces took Srebrenica and Žepa. Srebrenica would become identified with claims of “genocide,” but those would come later. At a conference in London on July 21, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali gave the UN military commander, General Bernard Janvier, the direct authority to request NATO airstrikes.
On August 4, 1995, Croatia launched an all-out attack on Serb-inhabited regions protected under the 1992 peace deal. UN peacekeepers did nothing to stop the attack. No airstrikes were called in. Quite the contrary, on August 30, NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force against the Bosnian Serbs. Croatian and Bosnian Muslim forces launched their own offensive on the ground. In the course of the three-week operation, some 400 aircraft dropped over 1,000 bombs.
At that point it seemed perfectly normal that the US, not the UN, would oversee the peace talks in Dayton, Ohio that ultimately produced a peace agreement that somehow still survives to this day.
“Even those who chafed at the reassertion of American power conceded, at least implicitly, its necessity,” wrote Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat tasked with organizing the talks, in his 1998 memoir ‘To End A War.’ He also described US foreign policy after Dayton as “more assertive, more muscular.”
The enforcer had thus usurped the roles of judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner. The UN did nothing in March 1999, when the US led NATO in attacking what was left of Yugoslavia and occupying Serbia’s province of Kosovo, in open violation of the US Constitution, NATO’s own charter, and that of the UN.
Only afterward was the world body brought in, to legitimize the occupation through UNSC Resolution 1244. Yet NATO did not care a whit that the resolution guaranteed Serbia’s sovereignty over the province and provided for the eventual return of Serbian security forces. Instead, Washington backed the 2008 declaration of independence by the ethnic Albanian provisional government and has pressured more countries to follow along ever since.
It is hardly surprising that almost all proposals for US intervention in Syria during the Obama administration focused on establishing “safe areas” and conducting airstrikes. Why change the script if it worked in Bosnia so well?
After Iraq, however, the rest of the world is not as willing to take anything at just the word of US media or Washington officials. Russia in particular insists on evidence over assertions, and points out its troops are fighting against terrorists in Syria at the request of the country’s legitimate government - unlike the US troops currently operating there.