Operation Ibar: the Serbian plan for the reconquest of Kosovo

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

In January of this year, with the worsening of the Ukrainian crisis, we wrote an analysis entitled "Swarm of Fire”In which we explored the possibility, which then dramatically materialized, that Russia decided to resolve the Ukrainian question at its root by openly invading its neighbor. Today, in the almost absolute silence of both the world chancelleries and the main media and public opinion in general, since July, in the heart of the Balkans, a serious political-military crisis is taking place between Serbia and Kosovo which, at the age of 21 away from the end of Yugoslavia's wars of disintegration, it risks plunging the area back into a dramatic generalized war.

The spark of the umpteenth crisis between Belgrade and Pristina was the announcement by the authorities of the second of the imminent end of the 11-year moratorium of validity of the vehicle documents of the ethnic Serbs of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo. These documents were in fact issued in Serbia and for a long time constituted an element of the dispute between the leadership of Belgrade and Pristina because the political leaders of the Albanian ethnic majority (which also constitute the ruling political class of the self-proclaimed republic) consider them tools of the enemy. to keep Kosovar society divided and fragmented. On the other hand, Belgrade accuses the Kosovo Albanians of wanting to carry out a devious policy of "denationalization" towards non-Albanian minorities (especially against the Serbs) present on the territory of the self-proclaimed republic, which is instead known in Serbia as the "Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija".

Here it is necessary to open a brief "geographical" parenthesis because what "Westerners" is known simply as "Kosovo" it is actually the union of three different territories. In the northern area there is the so-called "Northern Kosovo", comprising the municipalities of Leposavić, Zvečan, Zubin Potok and the northern part of the city of Kosovska Mitrovica. This area, which covers just over a thousand square kilometers and which, among other things, includes the strategic complex of the Trepča mines, rich in lead, zinc, silver, gold and at least sixty other minerals of all kinds, it is firmly in the hands of the Serbian minority, which here constitutes the absolute majority.

Northern Kosovo represents the most recent part of the "Kosovar territorial acquisitions" having been unified with the rest of the province only in the "Second Postwar Period" on the initiative of Petar Stambolić, a long-standing name in the hierarchy of the Serbian section of the League of Yugoslav Communists and himself president of Yugoslavia between 1982 and 1983. The main reason that led Stambolić to press for the unification of the territories of Northern Kosovo with the "rest of Kosovo" was to strengthen his electoral base in the territory and give more relevance to the Serbian community in Kosovo by increasing the overall numbers.

The rest of the area is divided into two mirror-like zones of similar size, one located to the east, towards southern Serbia, and the other located to the west, towards northern Albania, gravitating respectively around Pristina (the largest inhabited center). important in the region) and around the Peć-Dečani-Đakovica-Prizren axis. The first of the two areas (the one gravitating around Pristina) is “Kosovo” proper, while the second (the one gravitating around Peć-Dečani-Đakovica-Prizren) is the “Metohija”.

Having said that, the present analysis does not have as its object the complete description of the events that led to the Kosovo War of 1999, the territorial claims that oppose the Serbs and the Albanians and the very complicated demographic history of this tormented territory (whose meticulous reconstruction has created serious problems even to myself!) so from now on we will only talk about the situation of geopolitical clash that the Balkan area inherited after the NATO intervention which effectively removed the province from the control of Serbia (then part of the reduced "Federal Republic of Yugoslavia") and then favored the so-called "Unilateral Declaration of Independence" of 2008.

It is important to point out that the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of 2008 did not lead to a final settlement of the conflict and indeed it stiffened the parties even more to increasingly uncompromising and now substantially irreconcilable positions. The events of the Russo-Ukrainian War then contributed to further precipitate the situation because, fearing for the security and territorial integrity of their self-proclaimed "republic", Kosovar Albanian leaders, first and foremost Prime Minister Albin Kurti, a man known for his nationalist and not at all conciliatory positions towards the Serbs who, even in the light of his painful past in the first person, he considers as "personal enemies", have announced that he wants to press the accelerator on a whole series of very delicate dossiers such as: the accession of Kosovo to NATO, the accession of Kosovo to the European Union and the creation of real full-blown Armed Forces by simultaneously relaunching a series of political slogans (it is not clear whether for internal political use or with real programmatic purpose) such as the unification of Albania and Kosovo into a "Greater Albania", the indivisibility and territorial integrity of the Republic of Kosovo (hence i rejecting in principle the "partition" repeatedly advanced by numerous international mediators, but also by other Albanian political leaders, such as "the lesser evil") and the absorption of the territories of southern Serbia with an Albanian majority (the now infamous municipalities of Preševo , Bujanovac and Medveđa) in a large mono-ethnic Albanian state.

Of course it would be wrong to attribute to the Kosovar Albanian premier all the responsibility for what is happening, given that the president of Serbia himself, Aleksandar Vučić (in the photo, the one on the left), and a large part of the political leadership of his party (the SNS, the " Serbian Progressive Party ") have held a very volatile and irregular conduct on the Kosovar question for most of the past decade, sometimes making proposals useful to get out of the impasse and at times threatening military actions against the" secessionist province ", trying at the same time to work to isolate it diplomatically, not without some success. In fact, at present, out of 193 members of the United Nations, a total of 97 (equal to 50,26%) have recognized Kosovo as a "state" while the rest do not, and even within the two large sponsoring entities of the self-proclaimed republic, that is NATO and the European Union, there is no unanimity of views given that Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Romania and, above all, Spain, still do not recognize the dignity of "state" to the former Serbian province fearing like smoke in the look at the consequences that the “Kosovo model” would have on their respective national integrity. Hence, the exasperation of the contenders, dragged on over time, has produced a "wall-against-wall" that now external events (the aforementioned Russian-Ukrainian War) are precipitating, and also very quickly.

At this point we must ask ourselves, exactly as we did in the period preceding the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War: if we really have reached the fateful "point of no return", what options does Belgrade have for resolving the "Kosovar question" "by hand"? And what possibilities does Pristina have to resist?

First of all, it is necessary to point out that, despite the economic progress made by Serbia in recent years (and which earned it the nickname of "Tiger of the Balkans") on the one hand, and the attempts by international partners and on the one hand of the Kosovar Albanian leadership to shake the territory of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo from its status as a "crime hub in Europe" on the other hand, the hypothetical "Second Kosovo War" for now would oppose two of the poorest countries of the European continent, to other characterized by heavy demographic contractions. From this point of view, the data are pitiless: according to what is reported by the International Monetary Fund for the present year 2022, the per capita GDP at purchasing power parity of the citizens of Serbia is equivalent to $ 23.904 per year while that of the citizens of Kosovo does not exceed $ 13.964.

Demographically speaking, Serbia reached its moment of maximum numerical expansion in 1990 when it had a population of 7.897.937 inhabitants (excluding Kosovo) but by 2021 it was reduced to 6.834.326 (a decline of 13,5%). Kosovo, for its part, reached its maximum demographic expansion in 1997 with 2.188.083 inhabitants, but by 2021 they had become 1.786.079 (a decline of 18,5%).

Without mincing words, we are faced with two new "Ukraine cases": both Serbia and Kosovo are “country-systems” that are simply unsustainable in the long run and that are heading in large strides towards generalized failure (in the case of Serbia, largely probable, in that of Kosovo, simply inevitable).

Here, therefore, is a situation in which the political leaderships of the two countries can find a very useful way out of the war "at no cost" rather than embarking on a painful and unpopular process of reform and reorganization of their respective state structures in order to give hope and a future to their peoples. It should be noted, however, that this is a reasoning of universal value, and not limited only to the Kosovo-Serbia dispute; where inept leaders rule the fate of countries, war will always be an easy and tempting prospect to divert the scrutiny of the masses from their own actions.

That said, in the current state of affairs, a military comparison between Serbia and Kosovo is simply impossible given that, as already stated in a previous analysis, in the light of the numbers and the arms race of recent years, Serbia has a military potential that at the moment it is equivalent to the sum of those of Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina combined.

The Kosovar Security Forces have 5000 men on active duty and 3000 reservists, being able to be reinforced for this purpose by the 10.000 men of the Kosovar Police. Both the Kosovar Security Forces and the Kosovar Police are completely devoid of an air and artillery component and have few means unsuitable for conventional defense. To be brutal, if we add up the known staff of only the 5 units that make up the community of special and elite forces of the Armed Forces and Police Forces of the Republic of Serbia, we get the figure (probably rounded down) of 5600 effective, which is numerically greater than the active component of the Kosovar Security Forces!

On a more general level, the initiative of a Serbian attack on Kosovo would fall on the shoulders of the Serbian Armed Forces, backed up by the Forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which would have an important supporting role given that it was at the time of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia than to that of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the latter were structured not only to fight crime (classic police role) but also to integrate the Armed Forces in counter-guerrilla missions or conventional defense of the national territory (as in fact happened during the wars of disintegration of Yugoslavia, particularly in the Kosovo War).

A further element that Belgrade can use for such an operation, beyond its actual armed wing, is the small but determined Serbian community in Kosovo. Composed of about 125.000 souls, the last survivors and heirs of an ancient tradition of 800 years and today perennially exposed to the moods and oppressions of the Albanian majority who, partly because of the events of the past, and partly because of the rhetoric that is not at all conciliatory used by the political leadership of Pristina, it has an openly hostile attitude towards them, the community of Kosovar Serbs has never given up either its identity or the prospect of a return of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo despite the strict demographic laws leaving virtually no way out (at best, Serbs make up a mere 7% of the territory's population).

From the point of view of distribution, the Kosovar Serbs reside for about 1/3 in the territories of the aforementioned Northern Kosovo and for the remaining 2/3 in a series of communities scattered in patches throughout the territory of Kosovo and grouped in most of them around the municipalities of Štrpce, Gračanica, Novo Brdo, Ranilug, Klokot and Parteš, all located in rather strategic areas and ideal for organizing defensive operations even against numerically preponderant forces.

Regarding the loyalty of the Kosovar Serbs to the Republic of Kosovo, we must not be under any illusion: it simply does not exist. Any scenario related to a new war in Kosovo must start from the assumption that the Kosovar Serbs will rise up en masse in support of the Serbian reconquest attempt and at the same time the Albanians will definitely seize the ball to take advantage of the unique opportunity to clean up ethnically the territory of Kosovo from all Serbs up to the last elder and / or child.

In brutal terms: from the Albanian point of view when the guns are silent, the only Serbs still present on the territory of Kosovo will be those who are dead, literally. That's why in front of our eyes unravels what has all the ingredients to become an existential clash (and in reality it already is). On the one hand, the Kosovar Albanian majority whose objective is to protect the independence and territorial integrity of the self-proclaimed republic and to liquidate what remains of the Serbian presence there and, on the other, the Armed and Police Forces of the Republic of Serbia assisted by the Kosovar Serbs (and perhaps also by elements belonging to other ethnic minority groups) with the aim of reintegrating Kosovo "manu militare" into Serbia with a consequent bloodbath for the Albanians whose final connotations may vary from the more "benevolent" scenario of a "great massacre" to the "catastrophic" one of a "new genocide and generalized expulsion".

Il casus belli of this conflict could be the uncontested failure of the "endless negotiations", coupled with the decision by Albin Kurti to proceed with the implementation of the legislation on vehicle documents, accompanied by an action by the Police Forces and Forces Kosovo Security Services aimed at physically taking control of Northern Kosovo and closing the border crossings with Serbia. At that point, under penalty of total political discredit, President Aleksandar Vučić would order the Armed Forces and those of the Ministry of the Interior to move: Operation Ibar would thus begin.

Predictably, the Serbian "special military operation" (the reference is by no means accidental!) Would take the shape of one progressive escalation. First, the Belgrade forces would move from their concentration areas located just north of Kosovo, in the areas of Ribariće, Novi Pazar, Raška and Mount Kopaonik in order to take control of Northern Kosovo and the city of Kosovska Mitrovica. . The declared aim of the action would be to protect the local Serbian inhabitants from the attempt (real or alleged) by the central authorities of Pristina to take control of the territory by force and carry out "a genocide". Obviously the Serbian action would be immediately acknowledged by the Pristina authorities as a hostile act to which the Albanian leadership would respond by deploying the Security Forces and the Police Forces, calling the people to arms (exactly as the Albanian guerrilla leaders did in 1999) and calling for military aid from Albania and NATO in general.

A consequence of the precipitate of events would be the assault on the Serbian enclaves located in the aforementioned areas of Kosovo by the Albanian militias in order to carry out the aforementioned ethnic cleansing. In some areas, also thanks to the troubled local orography, the Serbs would be able to resist and buy time, in others they would be quickly overwhelmed and massacred. This would give Belgrade the right to launch the second phase of the operation and, at the same time, declare the implementation of general mobilization within the country, so as to be able to regulate the people and arm the 600.000 reservists (including many veterans of the wars of disintegration of Yugoslavia) that Serbia has at its disposal. On the ground, Serbian forces would move south from the northern Kosovo area, aiming decisively towards Pristina. The maneuver would be supported by new columns that would penetrate the Kosovar territory starting from Kuršumlija, Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa and having as objectives Podujevo, Kosovska Kamenica, Gnjilane and Uroševac, in order to then converge on the capital from several sides and tighten it in a vice.

Serbian military operations will be opened by air and artillery strikes against high value targets while Belgrade special forces men will take control of strategic targets in order to pave the way for the armored formations of the Serbian army, especially the four battalions tanks equipped with M-84 tanks, in the role of real armored rams. It is unclear how long the Kosovan central authorities can resist in such a situation but, once the reaction capacities are paralyzed, the fall of the capital would in a short time also entail the taking of the whole eastern area of ​​the country (what, we have seen above, it represents Kosovo itself.At this point, the western part by country (the so-called Metohija) with its inhabited centers (Peć, Dečani, Đakovica, Prizren, etc ...) would still remain in Albanian hands.

What will happen at this point depends on the reactions both locally and internationally that the first two phases of Operation Ibar will trigger. If it is indeed true that the Security Forces and Police Forces of the Republic of Kosovo are unable to resist Serbia alone in the context of a conventional war (not so much for lack of men, who can eventually be found by mobilizing in massively the civilian population, as for the total lack of heavy weapons and air assets) it is equally true that KFOR is still deployed in Kosovo, which, although in the meantime reduced to "only" 4000 men, still represents a sort of "Mine to geopolitical stumbling"; in short, attacking KFOR means provoking NATO to go to war.

Last but not least, in the Kosovar territory there is the American base of Camp Bondsteel which represents a fundamental piece of the device of the United States of America in Balkan Europe and, you know, the USA would not willingly accept being expelled by force. from that geographical area.

Nor should we underestimate the existing relations between Kosovo and Albania, as well as the ability of the Albanian diaspora (in some countries much more influential than one would be tempted to believe) to mobilize world public opinion in support of the Kosovar cause exactly as it happened in 1999.

On the geostrategic front, Serbia is completely surrounded by member countries of the Atlantic Alliance (with the exception of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo itself) and, unlike what happened in 1999, the country has lost its access to the sea (with the independence of Montenegro) and is therefore subject to both the threat of a total blockade and an external invasion. In reality, however, looking at the historical precedent of 1999, the geopolitical situation today and a series of changes that have occurred in the last twenty years, there is the possibility that the Serbian position is not as desperate as it may seem at first glance.

First of all it should be noted that the global geopolitical context, especially after the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, has completely changed. Contrary to 1999, Russia is no longer a shadow of itself and is waging, in my opinion successfully, a war that promises to change the balance of power in Eastern Europe, giving a glimpse of the real possibility that the Ukrainian state disappear from the geographical maps and Moscow comes to settle firmly on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains. This, combined with the ambiguous policy of the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán (in the photo, the one on the left), whose country is formally a member of the European Union and NATO but which now flirts more and more heavily with Russia, Serbia and even with the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it ensures that Belgrade can eventually gain the long-awaited "external shore necessary to break the encirclement". Furthermore, the situation of extreme instability that characterizes the countries of the area, regardless of whether or not they are members of NATO (not only Serbia and Kosovo, but also Albania and all the other ex-Yugoslav republics) means that a possible massive external military intervention risks detonating the entire Balkan powder keg, today much more volatile and unstable even than in 1999. Not to mention that, in order to intervene militarily in the theater of operations, NATO would need time to mobilize its resources, risking to uncover other areas of crisis. This is even more true for the United States of America now committed on various levels to simultaneously containing Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, and which risk not having the men and the means to devote to the crisis. Balkan.

Finally, the revival of the war of sanctions against Serbia in the same way as that seen with Russia risks creating far from negligible damage not only to small local actors, but also to countries such as Romania, Poland, the Hungary, Germany and our Italy, which have invested so much in the past in this area with the aim of attracting it to the European orbit and who would now risk receiving, after the sanctions against Russia, a new heavy blow in this delicate historical situation. .

For this reason it is necessary to continue to monitor the Balkan crisis and the parallel developments of the Russian-Ukrainian war because over the next 6 months the seeds of a new armed conflict could sprout in the heart of Europe.

Photo: Serbian Armed Forces / NATO / Kremlin / US Army