This week sees the 25th anniversary of Operation Storm. This military action by Croatia liberated its own territory, saved Bosnia-Herzegovina – preventing further genocide – and brought peace. The below article was written by CBR Editor Brian Gallagher in 2015 for the 20th anniversary of the operation. It appeared in Most, the annual magazine of the Croatian Chaplaincy in London. The item explains the context of Operation Storm and what happened next. It is still relevant in 2020.
The 20th Anniversary of Operation Storm
By Brian Gallagher
August 2015 saw the 20th Anniversary of the Croatian military action Operation Storm. A military parade was held in Zagreb to celebrate. The military action saw the liberation of substantial parts of Croatia, and also had the major effect of saving Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is worth considering why it took place, and subsequent events.
As is well known, Serbian forces – the Yugoslav Army and paramilitaries – occupied one third of Croatian territory by late 1991. This infamously involved the destruction of Vukovar and the shelling of cities such as Dubrovnik and Zadar. Large chunks of Eastern Slavonia, Western Slavonia and Central Dalmatian were occupied. A criminal Serbian parastate was established, the ‘Republika Srpska Krajina’ (RSK), with the intention of joining it into a ‘Greater Serbia’. The Croatian population was forcibly removed with many thousands of people killed. With the EU – somewhat late in the day – about to recognise Croatia, there was a ceasefire. The UN moved into the occupied territories. The Serbs then moved their attentions more fully to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Croatians then built up their military. In summer of 1995, they were in a position to act. A number of political and military events had come together:
The Bihac enclave in Bosnia was about to fall. Strategically, if it had, then the Serbs would be able to join pieces of territory. It would then be extremely difficult to defeat the Serbs. Further, given what had happened in Srebrenica it was not hard to see what would happen to the people of Bihac.
The UN operation in Croatia had been an abject failure – not only had they failed to re-integrate the territory back into Croatia, but even let RSK forces invade Bosnia to attack Bihać – including air attacks.
There had been better co-operation with the armed forces of the Bosnia due to the Washington Agreement and subsequent Split Declaration – the agreement had put an end to the abysmal Muslim-Croat mini-war. On the basis of this, the Croatian Army launched its Summer ’95 operation between 25 and 29 July 1995 which cut off Knin from Drvar – an essential preparation for the assault on the RSK.
Already in May that year, the Croatian military launched Operation Flash. This successfully re-took the occupied area of Western Slavonia back from the Serbs, showing Croatian military prowess. The next target in Croatia would be the RSK area centred around the city of Knin; a much bigger and more difficult proposition.
Croatia and the RSK government had been considering the Z-4 plan put before them by the International Community – but the Serbs rejected the proposals on 3 August.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman had no choice; Operation Storm had to proceed. The United States gave a de facto green light.
At 5 AM on 4 August, Operation Storm began. A number of enemy of signals centres were eliminated and a number of areas such as the Mali Alan pass and areas of Mount Velebit were liberated. The next day, 5 August, saw more territory liberated – including the town of Knin. Knin was the centre of the Serbian occupation and its liberation was a huge symbolic victory. Further territory was liberated on 6 and 7 August. At 1800 on 7 August Croatian Defence minister Gojko Susak declared the operation finished, although further mopping up would take place for a few more days.
The Operation was a resounding success. Serbian forces had been routed in just a few days. Their myth of Serb invincibility had been shattered. The Croatian Army and police had also been helped by the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bosnian Croat forces.
The United States had provided an important role; it was no secret that the Croatian military had received training and intelligence support from them. The Americans now saw a way forward to bringing the war to end. US President Bill Clinton saw it as balancing the situation in Bosnia.
Criticism of Operation Storm did come from Europe – from voices that had supported non-intervention and the notorious arms embargo against Croatian and Bosnia. Such policies had seen the Serbs take one third of Croatian territory and two thirds of Bosnia – committing genocide along the way. More sympathetic voices came from countries such as Austria and from Czech President Vaclav Havel.
Croatian forces moved into Bosnia, and in operations such as September’s Operation Maestral 2 pushed back the Serbs. NATO also started its Operation Deliberate Force against the Bosnian Serbs. Under American pressure, offensives by Croatian and Bosnian forces came to a halt, prior to their reaching Banja Luka. The Serbs had no choice but to come to the negotiating table and the Dayton Agreement ending the war was reached in December of 1995. Operation Storm had brought peace to Bosnia. Furthermore, the Erdut Agreement in November provided for the peaceful return of Eastern Slavonia to Croatian control, which took place in 1998.
One effect of Operation Storm was the mass exodus of the Serbs from the RSK. This was done under the directs orders of RSK ‘President’ Milan Martic. There is much evidence regarding this, indeed the RSK leadership held a press conference in Belgrade admitting it. Despite an appeal from President Tudjman, most Serbs followed their leadership in leaving. Indeed, they had left their homes before the Croatian army got there.
Unfortunately, there were criminal acts against remaining some remaining Serbs and there was looting and arson. These were not part of any policy and indeed many of those responsible were prosecuted by the Croatian authorities.
Despite this, a propaganda campaign by Serbs, their sympathisers and people motivated by arcane ideology portrayed Operation Storm as nothing more than an ethnic cleansing operation. The Croatian state failed to respond to this.
Eventually the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia issued indictments against Generals Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac. The prosecution claimed that a Joint Criminal Enterprise existed involving many others such as President Franjo Tudjman and also involving many organs of the Croatian state such as the military, police and so on. Although the indictment was against individuals, it effectively condemned the Croatian state. The moral, political and legal implications were enormous. If the liberation of Croatian territory was based on a Joint Criminal Enterprise and also the follow-on effect of saving Bosnia, this would give a fake ‘legitimacy’ to Serb ideas of a Greater Serbia. It would also effectively condemn the Untied States for its support of Croatia and Bosnia.
The trial began in 2008 and concluded in 2011 with the General Cermak acquitted but Generals Gotovina and Markac being found guilty and sentenced to 24 and 18 years respectively. The verdict caused shock in Croatia. However, the basis of the verdict was then found to be based on a bizarre 200 Metre rule introduced by the judges; any artillery shells falling outside 200M of a military target was illegal. This had never been put to the defence during the trial. Around 50 shells fell outside the limit, killing no-one – according to the judges this was the plan to deport the Serbs through fear. Matters such as crimes against Serbs were not intended but were ‘foreseeable’ consequences of this plan.
The ruling caused much concern around the world; the 200M limit was not achievable by many militaries, rendering them liable to prosecution. One report submitted to the Appeal Court by a retired British General pointed out that the British Army in Afghanistan with their modern weaponry could not match the 95% accuracy of the Croatians in Operation Storm.
The ICTY appeal court found in 2012 that the original trial erred in not explaining what the 200M rule was based on and applying it uniformly to all shelling. The Joint Criminal Enterprise theory fell apart and the judges dismissed all charges. Generals Gotovina and Markac returned to Croatia to a hero’s welcome.
Subsequently, the International Criminal Court examined charges of genocide brought against by Croatia and Serbia against each other. The court rejected the charges, but also did not accept claims of ethnic cleansing committed by Croatia – although it did against Serbia.
In these various court proceedings, the Brioni transcripts came up. These had recorded a meeting of Croatian military and political leaders which it was claimed outlined an ethnic cleansing plan. The international courts rightly did not accept this.
Despite the verdicts, vilification against Operation Storm had continued, with many claims of ethnic cleansing continuing to appear, in particular not only from Serbia but also from those with the aforementioned ideological biases. When Croatia decided to hold its celebratory parade earlier this year, a number of countries did not take part, although they did send representatives. This apparently came as a surprise to the Croatian authorities. Hopefully this will galvanise them to do more than they have in defending Operation Storm overseas.
Operation Storm liberated Croatia and saved Bosnia. If it had not taken place, there would not doubt have been further massacres of Muslims in Bosnia and a Greater Serbia state established in Europe. What effect would that have had on Europe’s psyche? It would be corrosive, corrupting and an encouragement for aggression. Operation Storm should indeed be celebrated; not only in Croatia but also across Europe.