The West opens fire without knowing why: The air attack deepens the commitment but fails to clarify the aim, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor

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The Independent Online
AFTER yesterday's air attack on Serbian forces in eastern Bosnia, the West is engulfed in the Bosnian war more deeply than ever. The F-16C raids have done little if anything to alter the overall military picture, but they have committed the Western world to sorting out the Bosnian morass. There is no walking away now.

The question, unchanged in two years of conflict, is: what exactly does the West stand for? In the name of what goal was the air attack conducted? To suggest the F-16Cs went into action to prevent the Serbs overrunning Gorazde does not provide an answer to the more fundamental question of what type of Bosnia, and what type of Balkans, the West wants to see.

Since Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose took over as the United Nations' commander in Bosnia, and since the Clinton administration adopted a more active, interventionist policy, it has seemed the West does have a sort of vision for former Yugoslavia. The Americans have persuaded the Bosnian Muslims and Croats to end their war and form a federation allied to Croatia.

There is a Muslim-Serb truce in Sarajevo, although it may come under strain now. With Russian support, the West has also helped to negotiate a ceasefire between Croatia and its rebel Serbian communities. There, it appears the West stands for the restoration of Croatia's territorial integrity, with a wide degree of autonomy offered to the Serbs. However, on two important questions the US and its allies remain evasive: What status does the West advocate for the Bosnian Serbs after the war? And what areas of Bosnia does the West believe it would be appropriate for the Serbs to control?

The attack on Serbs besieging Gorazde would seem to imply that the West thinks the town, and all the other former Muslim-majority towns in eastern Bosnia that the Serbs have rolled over since April 1992, should be returned to pre- war status. That would mean a much deeper Western military commitment in Bosnia.

What would be the reaction of Russia, which is openly protective towards the Bosnian Serbs? By its intervention in Sarajevo, Moscow has shown it thinks it has as much right as the West to influence a Bosnian settlement. It seems more likely that the West, fearful of expanding the war, is prepared to recognise some Bosnian Serb territorial conquests. If that is the case, it is unclear why the F-16Cs were dispatched yesterday. Why save Gorazde for the Muslims while allowing Zvornik, Foca, Visegrad and other towns to stay in Serbian hands?

The same contradictions are evident in Western policy on the future status of the Bosnian Serbs. Officially, the West is trying to prod them into joining the Muslim-Croat federation. Rest assured that they will never contemplate that, as long as the federation is allied to Croatia and they are denied a similar connection to Serbia.

Appreciating the logic of the Bosnian Serbs' case, the West will probably accept they should have a close association with Serbia. However, it remains unclear how, or even if, the West would prevent that association from developing into outright unification. Again, one must ask: what is the point of attacking Bosnian Serb positions if, at the end of the day, the West is going to tolerate the de facto creation of an enlarged Serbian state?

The West is shooting down aircraft and firing at tanks without knowing why. Even the Clinton administration has been deeply and publicly divided over the value of attacking Serbian targets around Gorazde. US military leaders spoke out against it last week, but clearly have been overruled.

The likely effect of yesterday's attack will be to dash the chance of an early Bosnia settlement, harden the policies of the breakaway Serbian state in Croatia, and cause Russia to rethink its strategy. It would be nice to know if the West had thought of that before sending out the F-16Cs.