Enter Nato - at last

BOSNIA The West has crossed the Rubicon. After last week's intervention there is no going back. A report by Christopher Bellamy, John Carlin, Emma Daly and Andrew Marshall
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The Independent Online
FOR THOSE who believe that military intervention is the only way to stop the war in Bosnia, Wednesday was a bright and brave day. The skies above Bosnia were thick with the vapour trails of aircraft and smoke from the bombs falling on Bosnian Serb targets, long immune from attack. Nato and the UN had, acting together, struck back at the Bosnian Serbs.

In Sarajevo, there was joy and disbelief that at last the West was acting. Bill Clinton, who had long advocated air strikes, said they demonstrated to the Bosnian Serbs that they "have nothing to gain and everything to lose" by continuing to attack Sarajevo and other UN safe havens. He described the punishing air attacks as "the right response to the savagery in Sarajevo". A former Clinton official, in more poetic vein, observed: "The West has finally found its soul."

The trigger was the mortar shell that fell on Sarajevo last Monday, killing 38 people. It was hardly the first time that this had happened, and before - though sabres had been rattled and fingers wagged - there was little response. This time, the reaction was different. For the first time in four years of Balkan war, the West intervened with all the force at its disposal, not just to stop the slaughter in Sarajevo but to force an end to the conflict.

There was nothing too unusual about the mortar bomb that landed close to the Markale market-place last Monday - it happens all the time in Sarajevo. But normally only one or two people are killed, a few more wounded, certainly not enough to trigger Nato air strikes, even of the pin-prick variety. The hideous scenes - limbs scattered around in pools of blood, one man's body draped limply over the railing next to the pavement, the horror on the faces of passers-by marshalling to collect the dead and wounded - were merely the magnification of everyday life in the city. "It was perfectly clear the Serbs did not want to kill 37 people, but they ran out of luck," said one UN official in Bosnia.

It is impossible to say who exactly fired the bomb, though the UN determined within 24 hours that it was the Bosnian Serbs. That they should have done this, even when the threat of military retaliation was in the air, says much about the beliefs in Bosnia about Western resolve. The Serbs had played on the fears of the world so well for so long, and on its desperate desire for some kind of resolution to the conflict. Again and again they raised the stakes - but along the way the West changed the game and the Serbs took no notice.

The London Conference in July had promised swift and disproportionate retribution for Serb attacks on the UN-declared "safe areas"; but even as the politicians made their speeches, the enclave of Zepa was falling to General Ratko Mladic's army. To many observers in the region, it appeared the international community was again making promises it had no intention of keeping. The Bosnian Health Ministry reported that 33 people were killed in Sarajevo in the week following the conference.

The leadership in Pale apparently assumed it was more or less business as usual. But they should have noticed that actions were changing as well as words. The French, British and Dutch, all with peacekeepers in Bosnia, dispatched the Rapid Reaction Force armed with artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships painted camouflage green to Mount Igman, west of Sarajevo.

Lt-Gen Rupert Smith, UN commander in Bosnia, had refused to paper over the gaping inconsistencies and logical flaws within the UN mission and in international attitudes to Bosnia. He proved willing to move from peacekeeping to peace-enforcement. His approach was straightforward: he has made good the few threats he made to the Bosnian Serbs, and refused to talk to them while they held his soldiers hostage.

Gen Smith also supervised a sly withdrawal of peacekeepers most exposed to Serb fire. The withdrawal of the last British troops from Gorazde on Monday night robbed the authorities in Pale of their last potential hostages and cleared the way for Nato's jets to act without fear of reprisals against foreigners.

Radovan Karadzic and Gen Mladic also miscalculated the Serbian factor. The fall of the self-styled "Krajina Serb Republic" to the Croatian Army in less than 48 hours shattered the image of heroic Serb warriors prepared to fight to the death and, more importantly, the myth of Serb unity. President Slobodan Milosevic, architect of the secessionist rebellions, stood by tranquilly as Zagreb stormed through Serb-held areas of Croatia, forcing almost 200,000 Serbs to flee for their lives.

THERE had been a change of heart, a change of mind, in the US as well, making violent retaliation almost a foregone conclusion. It seems very likely that even had the mortar bomb not fallen on Monday, aerial attacks were on the way. Nato had, at crucial meetings in July and August, decided that henceforth air power must be wielded in a more decisive and aggressive way. Richard Holbrooke, the US Assistant Secretary of State and mastermind behind the US diplomatic push, had already signalled that this determination would be made manifest.In a TV interview on NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday before flying out to the Balkans for talks, the day before the shelling of the Sarajevo supermarket, he said: "I do want to say here and now to all parties that we think the coming week is potentially decisive," adding: "One way or another Nato will be heavily involved: this is something that the Serbs would not want."

The deaths of the three US officials spearheading Washington's peace effort in an accident last month appear to have spurred President Clinton personally to follow through on the peace efforts they had begun. He flew back from his Wyoming vacation to address a memorial service for the three in Washington on 24 August. "Bob, Joe and Nelson were in Bosnia because they were moved by the terrible injustice and suffering there," Clinton said. "Let us resolve to carry on their struggle with the strength, determination and caring they brought to their families, their work and their very grateful nation."

There were more practical, political considerations at work as well. In recent weeks it had started to look increasingly likely that UN troops in Bosnia would have to withdraw, requiring the dispatch of some 20,000 US soldiers to assist in the evacuation. This could have bogged down the US on the ground until the November 1996 elections, or at any rate until well into the campaign, with grave consequences for Clinton. In US election politics foreign policy involvements have been shown to yield few benefits but great capacity for catastrophe - witness Bush and the Gulf war, or Carter and the Iran helicopter fiasco.

If there is one thing that is driving Clinton's actions on Bosnia now more than any other it is his eagerness to try and mop up the whole Bosnia mess - or at least banish all possibility of escalated and dangerous US military involvement - as long as possible before the American voters' minds become concentrated on the next election.

Clinton administration officials had been saying in recent weeks, well before the Nato strikes, that the main US aim had been to bring the conflict to a head - to that end the Sarajevo shelling turned out to be hideously convenient.

Moreover, the withdrawal of the UN would mean the lifting of the arms embargo which, quite apart from the rifts that would create in the Western alliance, would hand a political victory to Clinton's likely electoral rival (if present polls are to be trusted), Senate majority leader Bob Dole. Dole has been noisily advocating a complete UN pull-out and the lifting of the embargo. In the last week he has kept unusually quiet on Bosnia, breaking his silence only to say that his congressional motion for lifting the embargo should be put on hold pending the outcome of current peace efforts.

If the Bosnian Serbs cave in peacefully, then so will Dole's gung-ho foreign adventurism - granting Clinton perhaps the chance to pick up a point or two in the next opinion poll. In itself, the Nato strike denies Dole the chance to continue portraying Clinton as weak, negligent, timorous on the world stage. Once more, and to the approval of Middle America, Clinton can declare that America is asserting its muscular pre-eminence in world affairs.

European resistance to US policies, so strong for the past two years, was waning. President Jacques Chirac, newly installed in the Elysee Palace, had made it clear he wanted a more robust attitude. Britain has, at key points, relied on a tactical alliance with Paris to block US initiatives but has found that increasingly difficult this year. With the White House in the driving seat, and Chirac advocating tougher action, the British were forced to go along, taking Nato for the first time into the firing line and pushing the UN into unknown territory.

THERE is a sense among the military that this week's moves are important beyond the Balkans. For six years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West has vacillated between the desire to use force to stop wars and the fear of involvement. It is part of a revolution in military thinking, which could be the most profound since Clausewitz .

Wednesday's intervention clearly marked the transition from a form of "peacekeeping" to what is now called "peace enforcement", which involves taking sides. Coming in the wake of recent Croatian successes against the increasingly isolated and hard-pressed Bosnian Serbs, it also underscored an emerging principle of intervention. Military intervention cannot be used to stop a war or change its direction. You must wait until the trend is favourable, until the combination of circumstances on the ground and at the conference table are favourable. Then, intervention can hasten or support the trend.

Until now, the role of the UN in Bosnia has been seen as mitigating the natural consequences of civil war - fighting disease, starvation and atrocities, and, indirectly, checking the advance of the warring sides. But, as in the world of finance, where interventions to prop up declining currencies usually fail, and as in homeopathic medicine, the better strategy may be to go with the flow of events rather than try to fight them. Such a philosophy is, in fact, a variant of an old principle of war - reinforce success.

Military thinkers have attempted to recodify the spectrum of uses to which armed force may be put for purposes which are neither full-scale war nor peace, and to draw up new principles which may be different from - or modified versions of - the traditional principles of war. Operations like the UN deployment in Bosnia are essentially a development of traditional peacekeeping, albeit in circumstances that are physically very demanding, dangerous and volatile. Thus, they require the forces involved to be well- armed and prepared to defend themselves. They are "wider peacekeeping".

Nevertheless, they still rely on the "consent" of the local parties - even if that consent is occasionally withdrawn at the local level. The principles of impartiality and minimum force still dominate. Once the line of consent is crossed more generally, when a UN force ceases to be impartial, and when the consent of one of the parties is withdrawn, it becomes peace enforcement. Once the Rubicon is crossed, there can be no return - until one side is defeated. The Rubicon was crossed on Wednesday.

The West's nightmare scenario - that retaliation for Serbian attacks will spark a new Balkan war - is on hold for the moment; the people of Sarajevo are jubilant. But we are still in the first act of the end-game.

Mr Milosevic, who has audaciously positioned himself as the region's man of peace, will probably consider his end of the bargain upheld when he signs up to a peace plan on Pale's behalf, and will demand an end to the economic embargo on Yugoslavia.

At that point, the real negotiations - over the trading of land - will fall to Mr Karadzic and Gen Mladic, who are past masters at stringing the international community along. If history is any guide, they will re-enact the tactics that served them so well until this week: resist until the last second, then make a paper concession that proves meaningless except in its value as a deterrent to UN or Nato action. They are already trying that now, refusing to remove heavy weapons from around Sarajevo and daring Nato to continue its attacks at a time when the peace process is making headway.

The use of military force last week was a calculated bet that air attacks and diplomatic pressure could create the circumstances in which the war would end. If the gamble works, the UN will probably return as peacekeepers to a viable frontier between the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation. If not, there can be no return to the status quo ante. The UN would have to withdraw, with all the dreadful consequences that implies: human catastrophe, bloody conflict and the risk that war will spread. It bears out one of the evolving principles of the new consensus on force in a post-Cold War world: "Military intervention is the last resort".

Leading article, page 20

Diary of a violent month

August 1: Nato agrees to

use air power to defend the safe areas of Sarajevo, Bihac and Tuzla.

Aug 4: Croatia launches

offensive to regain Krajina enclave, held by Serb minority for four years. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic tries to sack army commander Ratko Mladic, but cancels the order when Mladic and other generals openly defy him.

Aug 5: Knin, capital of Krajina, is captured. Tens of thousands of refugees flee

into Bosnia.

Aug 6: Croatian government announces that the rebel stronghold no longer exists. Remaining pockets of resistance are mopped up.

Aug 7: After just over three years, siege of UN-designated "safe haven" of Bihac is lifted.

Aug 11: President Bill Clinton vetoes a Congressional

move to end the arms embargo on Bosnia.

Aug 12: Russian parliament votes to withdraw from UN sanctions against former Yugoslavia.

Aug 18: UN announces that most of its troops are to be withdrawn from the Bosnian enclave of Gorazde.

Aug 19: Three American envoys and a French soldier killed in road accident on way to Sarajevo on peace mission.

Aug 24: Ukrainian troops withdraw from Gorazde.

Aug 25: British troops leave Gorazde.

Aug 28: Two shells hit Sarajevo near main market killing 38 and wounding 85 in worst attack in more than a year.

Aug 29: UN blames Bosnian Serbs for attack on Sarajevo.

Aug 30: Nato planes and artillery blast Serb targets in response to mortar attack.