Bosnia's last hope dies at Bihac

The Muslim republic has been sacrificed to avert the risk of a debacle that could destroy the Nato alliance
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The Independent Online
``A SHELL explodes every second. They are attacking everything. The hospital is in critical condition.'' This was on Tuesday afternoon, and it was the mayor of Bihac, Hamdija Kabiljagic, speaking to an Austrian radio station - and to the world.

``One exploded in the immediate vicinity of a UN vehicle yesterday. Everybody is hiding, including the United Nations. The Serbs moved into the UN safe area a couple of days ago. Now they are in the suburbs. The population of Bihac is starving. The defenders are only protecting our bare lives. We will fight, even if the United Nations is just watching the genocide,'' he said.

Harrowing though his message was, it fell on deaf ears. For Tuesday was also the day that the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and the US Defense Secretary, William Perry, raised the prospect of letting the Bosnian Serbs, triumphant in Bihac as in two-thirds of the rest of Bosnia, form a confederation with Serbia. This, it is generally accepted, is but the first step on the path to acknowledging the de facto creation of a Greater Serbian state.

Tuesday was the day, too, when the harassed and humiliated UN made public its view that its peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina would have to end unless there was a rapid ceasefire across the whole republic. Since that would merely freeze in place Bosnian Serb territorial gains, this was tantamount to an admission that the Serbs have achieved most of their war goals and that the outside world cannot summon the will or unity of purpose to deny them the fruits of victory.

In short, last week saw the sacrifice of Bosnia. It is now all but certain that Bosnia will never be reconstituted as a single, multi-national republic in its pre-war borders. Western countries may preserve the fiction of Bosnian unity for a while by maintaining the pretence that the Serbian-controlled sector will not be absorbed with Serbia into one entity. But to make a reality of Bosnia's unity requires a commitment of resources and a collective sense of endeavour that, it is now clear, is beyond the West's grasp.

In private, some British and other Western government officials had entertained little hope for Bosnia right from the start of the war in April 1992. In their view, only large-scale military intervention against the Serbs - perhaps deploying up to 100,000 troops - was likely to save the republic. But no Western government, not even that of the US, the loudest champion of the Muslims, ever seriously considered that option.

Still, the final, irrevocable sacrifice of Bosnia did not occur until the sudden crisis that blew up last month in Bihac, the Muslim enclave in the north-west. The Serbian assault on Bihac forced Nato to confront the bitter truth that air strikes alone could not deter the Serbs. It demonstrated the hollowness of the UN's claim to have established ``safe areas'' for Muslims in six parts of Bosnia.

Four of those ``safe areas'' - Gorazde, Srebrenica and Zepa in the east as well as Bihac - are now in a Serbian stranglehold. Sarajevo is exposed and vulnerable, and has taken a fearful battering over the last 30 months. Only the Tuzla region is strong enough to withstand a Bihac-style Serbian offensive for any length of time.

The Western Alliance therefore faced two options last week: either to settle the war as quickly as possible, which essentially means conceding victory to the Serbs, or to lift the UN arms embargo on the Muslims, supply them with large amounts of weapons and hope that they can reverse the tide of war.

Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, the incoming majority leader in the new Republican-dominated Senate, visited Brussels and London last week to advocate lifting the embargo. He won public support on Wednesday from Baroness Thatcher, and earlier in the week from Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats in Germany.

But he also provoked outrage among government ministers in Britain, France and Russia - the trio of countries that the conservative German newspaper Die Welt last Monday scathingly called ``a new anti-American directorate in the UN Security Council''. The British, French and Russians adamantly oppose lifting the arms embargo, and the Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, went so far as to say Mr Dole and other US congressional critics were ``behaving disgracefully''.

In fact, even before Mr Dole's European trip, it had become clear that the Clinton administration was so alarmed at the prospect of a long-term shattering of the Western alliance's unity over Bosnia that it was rowing back from the idea of significantly increased support for the Muslims.

The Clinton administration had stared into the abyss of Western disarray and had not liked what it saw. Nato's unity and credibility, though badly damaged by the Bihac crisis, were still too important to be thrown away for a limited defence of honour in the Balkans.

Why was the option of lifting the arms embargo rejected? One reason was that Western countries feared that Russia might break ranks and switch to a more pro-Serbian policy in the Balkans and a less co-operative policy towards the West in Europe as a whole. This was considered a huge risk at a time when the West is trying to persuade Russia to accept that former communist countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic should be integrated into Western institutions, including Nato.

Another reason was that, even if the West were to boost the Muslim war effort, it would take several months before the extra supplies of weapons could have an effect. In that interlude, the Serbs would be sure to wreak havoc on virtually defenceless Muslim communities such as those in Bihac and the three enclaves of the east.

A third reason was the military assessment that arming the Muslims would not tip the balance decisively in their favour. In fact, after six months or a year of intensified fighting and thousands more lives lost, Bosnia would still face partition on much the same terms as proposed now, with 51 per cent going to the Muslim-Croat federation and the rest to the Serbs.

A fourth reason was the fear that the Serb-Croat war would break out afresh in Croatia. A fifth was that to lift the embargo would force a chaotic end to the UN operation in Bosnia, with peacekeepers obliged either to fight their way out or to abandon their equipment and depart in humiliation.

There remains the possibility that Congress will force President Clinton's hand, the arms embargo will collapse, British and French troops will beat a hasty retreat from Bosnia, and US relations with Russia and Western Europe will rapidly deteriorate. But that prospect loomed so large last week that virtually everyone agreed it must not come to pass.

That is no comfort at all to the Bosnian Muslims. Not for the first time in Europe, a small nation lies bleeding on the altar of Great Power interests.

(Photograph omitted)