Assessing Serb Military Strength

March 28, 1993|By RICHARD O'MARA

Among the factors inhibiting Western countries, including the United States, from a more forceful intervention in Bosnia to curb the aggression of the Serbs is the memory of the formidable guerrilla forces that made Yugoslavia such a hell for the Nazis during World War II.

The awareness of the mettle of those forces operating in the forests and mountains of their homeland was sufficient later to discourage Josef Stalin from sending his army into the Balkans to drag Yugoslavia within the iron ring of Soviet control after Marshal Josip Broz Tito objected to Moscow's hegemony.

Thus, for many years Yugoslavia operated with a certain independence internationally. It was a vestibule between the European Communist world and the West. It earned hard currency from its tourism and trade with the West. It received Marshall Plan aid and even some military equipment from the United States.

But Marshal Tito is gone now. Gone as well, according to a number of military experts in London, is the legendary prowess of the southern Slav guerrillas.

"One must remember, this is not the army of Tito," said Michael Clarke, head of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College. "Against a Western force capable of outmaneuvering them, they wouldn't have a chance."

"They" referred to the Serbian militias operating in Bosnia, and besieging Sarajevo and smaller Bosnian towns, and also the Yugoslav army.

"This was the Communist army created after 1945 for federalist Yugoslavia. It has not had to fight until recently. It has suffered desertions, and has developed no tactics to speak of," he said.

With U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali nudging the United States toward a more forceful involvement in Bosnia, Mr. Clarke believes the Serbs would not prove all that formidable as dTC opponents -- at least not at the beginning.

He stresses that when he speaks of Serbian military incompetence, he is referring to the initial stages of any encounter. "Winning against the Serbs in the first instance would be very easy," he said. "It is the afterwards that matters. Defeat concentrates the mind. It would not take long for them to organize for guerrilla warfare.

"The Serbs are good at lobbing shells at towns and villages," he said. "They are operating as a positional army, and are not good as infantry."

For instance, when asked what it might require in the way of Western forces to lift the siege of Sarajevo, a move the French offered the U.N. for consideration several weeks back, he said the job could be done with as few as 10,000 troops.

"That is a realistic figure, to clear them from the mountains around Sarajevo," he said.

In the judgment of Rupert Pengelley, the Serbian forces in Bosnia exhibited from the outset "a high degree of incompetence."

Mr. Pengelley, the editor of Jane's International Defense Review, is an expert on the capabilities of military ground forces. The Serb militias, he said, "are trying to hold territory, which is not the thing they were trained for."

These kinds of tactics would prove disastrous should they have to confront a modern Western force, he said. "They would be wiped out."

Possession of heavy weapons has given the Serbs an advantage over the more lightly armed Bosnian Muslims. But it is the deficiency in tactics and overall strategy, according to the experts, where the Serbs are potentially most vulnerable in the ,, event of a Western decision to enforce a peace in Bosnia.

"Yugoslavia was set up to execute a general people's defense," said Mr. Pengelley. "The whole of the population was in some way involved in this plan. Unlike in England where, in the event of a war, everybody would look to the army, there everybody knew what they had to do. The command structures were in place, the depot system, weaponry was spread around, supplies were in all the states of the federation."

This plan was conceived for use against the Russians. But when the federation collapsed, and much of the equipment and stores was seized by secessionist Croats, Slovenes and even the Bosnians, the plan collapsed too.

Most significantly, the cooperation necessary to make the plan work against an invader from outside was absent. The defense plan itself became meaningless, and all the contesting forces were left to their own devices.

In a related issue, another expert in Balkan affairs, Dr. James Gow, also from King's College, said he believes Serbian expectation of an eventual American involvement has slowed Belgrade's timetable for extending the boundaries of the Serbian state.

For instance, Dr. Gow thinks apprehension on the part of the Serbs will delay, at least for a while, an aggressive move against the Albanians in Kosovo province.

"People in Serbia who would otherwise dismiss most international efforts, will now take them more seriously," said Dr. Gow. "Serbia had been calculating without U.S. involvement. Now, with international pressure so great . . . they would be far better off to try to put a hold on things."

But Dr. Gow also says that a blow-up in Kosovo might be driven not from Belgrade but from the overbearing and provocative Serbian minority in the province.

And any major violence in Kosovo, both Dr. Gow and Mr. Clarke agree, would draw the federal army immediately to it.

"It could not be resisted in Belgrade, if only for the emotional commitment [to Kosovo] of the Serbian people," said Dr. Gow.

Richard O'Mara is a correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, based in London.

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