But however ready Nato is, the use of Nato air power will depend on Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, requesting it - something he has been reluctant to do. Air attacks would enrage the Serbs, making the subsequent use of Tuzla airport hazardous and the position of Dutch troops due to replace the Canadians in the Srebrenica pocket extremely vulnerable.
Air strikes make sense only in the context of one operation: UN withdrawal, and that may explain the timing of yesterday's statement. Governments with troops in Bosnia have recently said they do not intend to remain there indefinitely, preparing public opinion for a possible withdrawal in the spring.
In the final communique from the Brussels summit, the 16 Nato countries reaffirmed their readiness 'to carry out air strikes in order to prevent the strangulation of Sarajevo, the safe areas and other threatened areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In this context we urge Unprofor (the UN Protection Force) authorities to draw up urgently plans to ensure that the blocked rotation of the Unprofor contingent in Srebrenica can take place and to examine how the airport at Tuzla can be opened for humanitarian relief purposes'.
The mention of Srebrenica and Tuzla emerged on Monday as a British and French initiative. Some observers thought the line had been softened, as air attacks were not mentioned in the same sentence as Srebrenica and Tuzla. But Nato's Secretary-General, Manfred Worner, said the use of the words 'in that context' provided a 'clear hint' that air attacks were favoured as part of any such operation.
Nato has put lavish air forces at the UN's disposal as part of operation 'Deny Flight', but they have concentrated on enforcing the no- fly zone - not always effectively - and have not intervened in the conflict on the ground. The aircraft able to attack targets on the ground include British Jaguars based in Italy and six Sea Harriers on board the carrier Invincible in the Adriatic, but most of the attacking jets would be American.
Opening Tuzla airport is the obvious way to bring large quantities of supplies into central Bosnia, which for the last two winters has been dependent on aid brought by tortuous and time-consuming road routes. But the Bosnian Serb army, which surrounds the 'Tuzla hand', is only five miles east of the airport and nine miles west, so it could bombard the airport with artillery from both sides, as well as shooting at planes with surface-to-air missiles. An operation to remove Serbian artillery from threatening positions using air attack might work, but it would be almost impossible to ensure that small anti-aircraft missiles were kept out of range. It would also enrage the Serbs, almost certainly end their co-operation elsewhere, and bring the UN into the Bosnian war as a combatant.
The Prime Minister, John Major, yesterday said he and the French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, had 'had the same idea' about Srebrenica and Tuzla and that 'it is quite clear from the Declaration that airpower is needed'.
The Canadian force has been surrounded in the Srebrenica pocket for some six months, and is due to be replaced by Dutch troops, but the Serbs have prevented the handover. Yesterday Mr Major praised the courage of the Canadian troops and Canada's 'outstanding peace- keeping record'. Air forces would be useful covering a Canadian withdrawal, but it is hard to imagine another force going into the pocket after Nato had blitzed Serbian positions - or threatened to do so.
Military sources in Bosnia believe that a UN withdrawal in the spring could be the most dangerous time. The local armies, increasingly better organised, might take the opportunity to seize weapons and equipment. In this context, the use of air power to cover retreating UN troops makes sense. If attacks were launched against local forces in response to attacks on the withdrawing UN, the local armies would only have fleeting targets against which to retaliate. Clearly, the countries involved wish to keep as many of their options open as possible, but the inherent contradiction between the threatened use of air power and the UN's aim of providing humanitarian relief remains.
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