US plan risks bolstering Muslim war aims

COMMENTARY

What exactly is the new US peace initiative for Bosnia? Is it a formal plan, and how does it fit in with Nato's military attacks on the Bosnian Serbs?

With only two days before Serbs, Croats and Muslims attend US-sponsored talks in Geneva, uncertainty hangs over the proposals being hawked around the Balkans by Richard Holbrooke, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European affairs. The initiative appears a protean creature, changing shape from one day to the next.

The latest example concerns US willingness to let the Bosnian Serbs form a confederation with Serbia, just as the Muslims and Croats have already done with Croatia. A confederation is a constitutional relationship short of full union.

When details of the initiative filtered out three weeks ago, Western diplomats were convinced a confederation was one of the main incentives designed to entice Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs into a settlement. Yet on Monday evening, after talks in Ankara with Bosnia's Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, Mr Holbrooke said: "The United States is not supporting a confederation."

Another proposal that has gone into reverse, or maybe never existed in the first place, concerns the fate of Gorazde, the only remaining Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia. In the early days of the US initiative, it seemed the Bosnian Serbs would be offered Gorazde in return for more land for the Muslim-led government around Sarajevo.

Now Mr Holbrooke is adamant that the US never asked the Bosnian government to trade off Gorazde. In a strict sense, they are right, for an intriguing feature of the initiative is that, until late last week, US negotiators seem deliberately to have avoided presenting the Serbs, Croats and Muslims with maps of various possible territorial arrangements in Bosnia.

Croatia's Foreign Minister, Mate Granic, asked last Wednesday about the US initiative, replied: "No one has yet seen the maps. In all our talks with the Americans and with all players in the negotiations, no one has seen them."

Mr Izetbegovic, too, seems unclear what the Americans are proposing. He complained in Ankara on Monday that the US initiative contained too many grey areas, particularly as regards the borders to be allocated to the Bosnian Serbs.

Clearly, US strategists are calculating that their plan will stand a greater chance of success than previous Western efforts if it remains as flexible as possible on maps. Ideally, the Serbs, Muslims and Croats would sort out the territorial details themselves, and the US would need to exert no pressure beyond reminding each party that the core principle remains a 51-49 per cent division between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serbs.

There is, however, another reason for the confusion surrounding the US proposals. This is the fact that, whenever word has arisen of a possible concession to the Bosnian Serbs, the Muslim-led government has fulminated at the idea and Mr Holbrooke and company have felt obliged to beat a hasty retreat.

No Western government, least of all the Clinton administration, wants to be seen as bullying the Muslims, widely seen as the war's biggest victims. But the fact that the US peace initiative coincides with Nato's most forceful attacks of the war against the Bosnian Serbs is giving the Muslim-led government an unusual degree of political leverage over the West.

No sooner had Nato called a halt to the bombing last week than the Bosnian government threatened not to attend the Geneva talks unless the attacks resumed. The Bosnian Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, said he would never again negotiate at gunpoint - meaning no more talks unless Nato breaks the siege of Sarajevo.

Mr Izetbegovic went further on Monday and said his government would not give up Srebrenica or Zepa, even though the Bosnian Serbs overran the two eastern enclaves in July. He also ruled out allowing the Bosnian Serbs more land around the so-called Brcko corridor, the strip of land joining Serb conquests in northern and eastern Bosnia.

The problem facing the US initiative is that the Muslim-led government appears to view Nato's military campaign as an opportunity to exploit Bosnian Serb weakness and reject political and territorial compromises. Now that Nato has been sucked into fighting on its behalf, the government has less need to accept peace terms that it regards as unjust.

Clearly, though, such tactics risk hardening the Serb negotiating position, producing deadlock at Geneva and prompting the US Congress to override President Bill Clinton's veto on lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian government.

If that happened, the Clinton administration's policy would be in ruins - a failed peace initiative, and a war on its hands that it never wanted to fight.

TONY BARBER

Europe Editor

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