No arms from Britain for the Muslims: Government will 'sweat out' pressure to intervene in the war in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER the impact of the harrowing scenes from the evacuation of Srebrenica, Britain remains firmly opposed to Western intervention in Bosnia and to suggestions that the Muslims should be allowed arms. The policy appeared in question yesterday when David Howell, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, added his weight to those calling for intervention; and the day before, when Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, suggested that the United Nations should lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims to 'level the playing field'.

But, as one British diplomat declared: 'Government policy hasn't changed at all. It takes a lot more than David Howell to change the mood of the majority of the House of Commons.' John Major remains convinced British voters would not tolerate sustained British involvement and casualties in an unwinnable war.

It may in fact have been deliberately to test that theory that Mr Howell went on the radio to say that 'the mood of the world is beginning to say that the democracies must intervene, even if it's not in their direct narrow interest'.

'We've been here before,' said one Whitehall official. 'People are clearly bewildered in front of their television sets, but if the siege of Srebrenica now moves away from the headlines, the pro-intervention mood will probably recede again.

'We were here when Vukovar fell in November 1991, before the London Conference in August last year, and when Sarajevo appeared to be falling . . . The tactic of this government has been to sweat it out. The effect of the various stages of the war has not proved to be cumulative. It's a bit like Northern Ireland.'

Mr Howell also endorsed the US suggestion that the UN might lift the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims. Mr Christopher's remarks, made after the Clinton-Yeltsin summit in Vancouver, pointed to a possible rift between Britain and America: but British officials indicated yesterday his comments were intended more to put pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to sign the Vance-Owen peace plan than to lead to a lifting of the embargo.

First, they argue, for the Security Council to lift the embargo, it would have to steer clear of a Russian veto. Boris Yeltsin, who faces heavy pro- Serb sentiment among hardliners at home, could not justify its lifting of the embargo on Muslims only; the one on Bosnian Serbs would have to be lifted too, allowing the Russians to arm them. It is unlikely, the argument goes, that Bill Clinton would have struck a deal with the Russians to let them provide yet more arms to the well-equipped Serbs.

British officials also draw attention to what Mr Christopher actually said: if the Serbs continued to reject the peace efforts, the US might work to lift the embargo, but he also said that lifting it would lead to an increase in the fighting, and bring to a virtual end the humanitarian effort on the ground. British officials insist the weight of the argument falls against lifting the embargo.

Far more plausible, they say, is that a deal might have been struck in Vancouver to remove Russian objections to further sanctions against Serbia proper. The new sanctions, which would require a fresh Security Council resolution, would include the total isolation of Serbia by road. Domestically, Mr Yeltsin should face the same criticisms; but, diplomats say, he will be able to argue that the new sanctions constitute tightening of existing ones, such as the trade embargo - which is systematically violated.