A change of heart

BOSNIA Michael Sheridan on the week that saw Britain finally confront the prospect of war
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IT WAS the week when the British government changed its mind about air strikes in the Balkans and decided that the challenge posed to international order by the Bosnian Serbs was so great that finally it had to be met. And although neither Malcolm Rifkind nor a sulkily quiet Michael Portillo said so in their public appearance on Friday, it was the week when a nervous British cabinet decided to take the risk that Britain may now go to war against the Serbs.

The anatomy of the week's decision-making shows how ministers inched towards their unwelcome choice. It reveals enormous American pressure on the British to come off the fence and line up against the Serbs. It includes a cleverly argued campaign by the Foreign Secretary in Washington to moderate the US policy. It also displays how the French first struck attitudes of theatrical outrage which, paradoxically, served a valuable purpose in galvanising Britain to act.

The Bosnian government reacted with predictable disdain to the decision on Friday to issue an ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs over the fate of Gorazde, the last isolated eastern Muslim enclave. Senator Bob Dole, the Republican apostle of lifting the arms embargo and withdrawing the UN, was equally dismissive - "another dazzling display of ducking the problem," he said.

The Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey - who has called for the UN to pack up and go - will be furious that the 16 nations in London committed themselves to keeping it in place. Mr Sacirbey, the most fluent proponent of the Muslim case, wanted the UN out, the arms embargo lifted and - although he does not say so on American television - he wanted US forces to enter the Balkans. This strategy, essentially to Americanise the war, has been skillfully outplayed. The UN's withdrawal may not have been averted but it has been postponed.

Senator Dole was not made aware of the intensive backstage talks between the Western allies that resulted in a decision by Washington, London and Paris to issue their own starkly worded ultimatum to the Serbs. That warning will be conveyed to the Bosnian Serb leadership this weekend, probably by Western envoys based in Belgrade. And its terms will show that Britain and France have crossed a Rubicon they vowed to avoid.

US officials say the Serbs will be warned that an air offensive would devastate their military installations, sever their supply lines and aim at targets of political and organisational value. The US blueprint for action resembles a minor scale version of the air war against Iraq. It is an enormous risk.

So how and why did Malcolm Rifkind - barely a month in the job, inheriting the Balkan telegrams last perused by that notable "safe pair of hands", Douglas Hurd - change British policy within a week?

Mr Rifkind made his debut at the European Union in Brussels on Monday. The Russians were there to sign up to a long-delayed trade pact with the EU and there was some tedious Euro-business to wade through. But Bosnia rapidly seized everybody's attention and the new Foreign Secretary was pitched into a forum where many ministers warned that Anglo-French equivocation in the Balkans simply would not do for much longer.

The most influential words came from the Dutch Foreign Minister, Hans Van Mielo. In strict confidence he gave details of the horrifying scenes witnessed by his country's troops stationed in the fallen enclave of Srebrenica. One of last week's as yet untold stories is that of the extraordinary bravery shown by the Dutch officers as they sought to protect as many Muslim refugees as they could from Serb atrocities.

The fact that this testimony came from impartial and official sources made "an enormous political impact" according to one European diplomat who was there. Because the Dutch were at that time still in Serb territory their accounts could not be made public. But it was clear to everybody in Brussels that the UN mission could not go on as before. Some ministers were talking of a collapse of international power in the Balkans.

Mr Rifkind looked sombre. He flew back to London on Monday night to brief the Cabinet's OPD (Overseas Policy and Defence) committee. At the forefront of his mind was the fate of around 200 Royal Welch Fusiliers in Gorazde and the attendant national humiliation - or worse - that an attack on the enclave would entail for Britain. Ministers were told the options that had been rehearsed by military intelligence and MI6. None of them was pleasant.

A credible defence of Gorazde would take too long to mount. General Ratko Mladic could move on to the attack faster than heavy reinforcements could get in. Inserting a light force - the French were calling for 1,000 men to fly in - might not deter the Serbs. In both cases there would be losses in the air. Withdrawing the British troops from Gorazde was considered. But after Mr Van Mielo's account it seemed inconceivable that British soldiers could be seen to retreat, leaving the people of Gorazde to a fate like that of Srebrenica. The military men wanted to leave Mr Portillo and Mr Rifkind in no doubt about two issues. If the allies decided to "deter" the Serbs it could not be bluff. And if the deterrent involved an air offensive against the Serbs then the ministers had to accept that the West had gone to war.

The next day Mr Rifkind took Concorde to Washington. The Americans were in grim mood. They believed the UN mission was on the verge of collapse. Some in the Clinton administration were arguing that it should be allowed to fold up. The US, Britain and France all accepted that if the arms embargo was lifted the UN would indeed have to pull out. A general war, perhaps involving Russia, Greece, Turkey and other Islamic nations in support of the rival sides, could ensue.

"The administration was very impressed by Rifkind," an American official confided later in the week. "He was very cool. Very direct. Precise. Very strong. He came into Washington with the view that the UN was probably going to die in the Balkans." There were tough discussions with the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and Mr Rifkind did not have many cards to play. Britain desperately needed American air support for any of the unpalatable options it was considering - and if the UN did have to withdraw, American commitment to help would be vital.

Mr Rifkind and Mr Christopher consumed two breakfasts, two lunches and one dinner as they chewed over the choices. The Americans demanded a change in attitude. They wanted to use air power as they did in the Gulf. Only massive and overwhelming force could make a difference. The UN civilian officials, such as special envoy Yasushi Akashi, were to be cut out of decision-making. There could be no shrinking back if hostages were taken, for that would be to grant the Serbs a veto over allied action. The Americans pointed out that President Jacques Chirac had committed France to an aggressive defence of the UN and that Paris would not hesitate to blame the Anglo- Saxons for retreat and disaster.

Mr Rifkind argued back. "He held himself very well," said an American present at the talks. Britain had resisted going into action against the Serbs because it had no interests in fighting a war in south-east Europe. Ministers don't say so in public, but the fundamental British view remains that only a strong Serbia can ultimately guarantee security in the Balkans. Yet Britain wanted to preserve this doctrine while confronting what was now a direct threat to the "national interest" enshrined in our troops in Gorazde.

The Foreign Secretary flew back with a formula, hammered out during hours of difficult talks, to present to Friday's conference. Britain had to accept that France had seized the initiative with its bold rhetoric. It had to concede that if the United States was to use its awesome air power then the US government would insist on its own terms for doing so. But muddling through was no longer a choice. So the idea evolved of an ultimatum centred on Gorazde. "Rifkind realised it was better to go with the US policy of air power rather than the French idea of reinforcements," the US official said. The key point is that the air power ultimatum will only be triggered if the Bosnian Serbs attack.

This temporary insurance policy represents a conflict deferred, not averted. The allies also decided to use the Rapid Reaction Force to open up Sarajevo, which is bound to bring about confrontation. The US believes the Gorazde ultimatum will also be applied to other "safe areas" such as Bihac and Sarajevo. "The Bosnian Serbs have declared war on the UN and its resolutions" a US spokesman said. For that reason, the British government has had to accept that it may now have to cross the "Mogadishu line" defined by Lt Gen Sir Michael Rose between keeping the peace and fighting a war. The only questions are where, and when.

Leading article, page 24