Brute force reshapes Balkans

Western bombs have stopped the Serbs - but the battle for a deal is just beginning
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The Independent Online
"PEACE IS just a mess. Only war creates order." So says the Sergeant in the opening scene of Bertolt Brecht's play, Mother Courage. Since last May, war has indeed created a dreadful kind of order in former Yugoslavia, and the peace taking shape is a messy one, not guaranteed to provide long- term regional stability. In Western capitals, however, the sighs of relief exhaled by presidents and prime ministers were almost audible last week as Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy, painstakingly stitched together a deal to end Europe's most violent conflict in five decades.

Western leaders owe a great debt to Mr Holbrooke. Here is a man who, it seems, has truly saved their skins, brokering a settlement among some of the most slippery customers on the international stage. On Wednesday night, he negotiated for 11 hours with Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, and then, without pausing for a rest, he flew across the Balkans to bring into line the Croatian and Bosnian leaders, Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic.

If it holds, the settlement will lift the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, end Nato's military intervention in the war, repair the increasingly serious damage to the West's relations with Russia, calm tensions inside the Western alliance, and conclude 41 months of war in Bosnia with an agreement that divides the republic almost equally between a Bosnian Serb autonomous area and a Muslim-Croat federation. Mr Holbrooke has come closer than any previous Western mediator to squaring the Bosnian circle, and if he succeeds he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

Without disparaging his efforts, it remains a fact that it was brute Balkan force, rather than inspired Western leadership, that created the conditions for his apparent triumph. It is difficult to imagine the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, would ever have settled for peace on Mr Holbrooke's terms unless their enemies had cudgelled them into a grudging acceptance, with a fearsome display of military superiority.

This is exactly what has happened over the past four months, starting with the fall of the Serb-held region of western Slavonia in Croatia early in May, and ending last week with the Muslim-Croat conquests of a string of towns in western and central Bosnia - Bosanski Petrovac, Donji Vakuf, Drvar, Jajce and Kljuc. In the process, 200,000 Serbs have been driven from their homes, and the dream of a Greater Serbia extending from the Adriatic Sea to the Danube has turned to dust.

The writing appeared on the wall for the Bosnian Serbs two years ago, when Mr Milosevic, angered by their refusal to end the war while they held the upper hand, imposed limits on their supplies of arms, fuel and fighting men from Serbia. But an equally crucial factor was the arrival in Zagreb of Peter Galbraith as US ambassador to Croatia.

Mr Galbraith cracked Muslim and Croat heads together and told them they would never recover territory lost to the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia unless they stopped fighting each other and formed a common front. The year-long Muslim-Croat war in central and southern Bosnia ended early last year, the two communities formed a Bosnian federation allied to Croatia and, with Mr Galbraith's encouragement, Croatia built up a well-trained and well-equipped army capable of taking on the Serbs.

Eventually, the strategy produced devastating results. Rarely in their history have the Serbs suffered such calamitous defeats as those inflicted by the Croats since last May. Croatia's recapture of the Knin Krajina in early August was more than a conventional military victory, for it extinguished a centuries-old Serb civilisation in the western borderlands of Croatia.

For the Bosnian Serbs, the fall of the Knin Krajina transformed the strategic picture. Along a vast western and northern front, they suddenly faced the combined weight of a US-supported Croat and Muslim military coalition.

Nothing illustrates the Bosnian Serbs' plight better than the fact that Banja Luka, the largest city under their control, is now exposed to Croat and Muslim attack. Mr Tudjman has privately indicated he regards Banja Luka as an authentically Croat city, while Mr Izetbegovic is outraged at the Bosnian Serbs' systematic destruction of every mosque there.

If either man makes a grab for Banja Luka, Mr Holbrooke's deal could yet unravel. Peace therefore looks a good idea, if not to Messrs Karadzic and Mladic, who have been indicted by the UN as war criminals, then to other Bosnian Serb leaders such as Nikola Koljevic and Momcilo Krajisnik.

Finally, there is Nato. The Alliance's sporadic and limited air strikes from February last year onwards earned little but contempt from the Bosnian Serbs, who probably calculated that the Western alliance would go no further. But the ground began to shift with the election last May of a more assertive French President, Jacques Chirac, and Bill Clinton's need to show Congress and his future rivals for the presidency that he had a coherent Bosnian policy.

The turning-point for the West came in July in the UN-declared Muslim "safe areas" of Srebrenica and Zepa in eastern Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs' seizure of the enclaves was humiliating enough, but they went way too far when, after capturing Srebrenica, they separated Muslim men of fighting age from women and children and massacred the males.

How many died remains unclear, but 8,000 are unaccounted for. It was too much even for Western governments which had never wanted to go to war in a notoriously treacherous part of Europe. Nato issued an ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs not to shell Sarajevo or other "safe areas", the warning was ignored, and two weeks of US-led bombing ensued.

Bereft of meaningful support from Serbia and Russia, rapidly losing ground to the Muslims and Croats, the Bosnian Serbs were facing catastrophe.

Peace is not yet a certainty. Maps of control need to be worked out, constitutional arrangements agreed. Ceasefires must hold. But for the Bosnian Serbs, the die has been cast.

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