West's fears of Balkan war coming true: Tony Barber, East Europe Editor, argues that armed intervention is unavoidable

SLOWLY but surely, the West's fears of a general Balkan war are coming true. For that reason, the United States and its allies have reluctantly concluded that Western military engagement is less dangerous than Western inaction.

'The prospects for (Western) military intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina are real, as real as the prospect that the war in this former Yugoslav republic will internationalise,' the President of the Serbian-led rump Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cosic, said yesterday.

Before the Balkan winter is over, a number of developments are likely.

The UN Security Council will pass a resolution - possibly within days - authorising force to keep Serbian aircraft grounded in Bosnia. Despite British and initial French reservations, the US will be poised to lead Western air attacks on Serbian air bases, planes and helicopters.

If enforcement of the no-fly zone is delayed, Islamic countries may implement their decision, announced early this month, to arm the Bosnian Muslims from 15 January. That increases the risk that Russia's conservative nationalists, now stronger than ever in their battle against President Boris Yeltsin and his pro-Western Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, will help the Serbs, their fellow Slavs.

Over the past month, the war has not gone well for the Bosnian Serbs and their backers in Belgrade. Muslim forces have begun to retake parts of eastern Bosnia on the Drina river that the Serbs conquered last spring. At Brcko in northern Bosnia, government forces are close to severing the vital supply route between Serbia and Serbian-held parts of Bosnia.

In central Bosnia, British UN forces this week reported more government successes. 'There has been quite a lot of fighting, and considerable progress has been made by the Bosnians into Serb salients,' Captain Lee Smart said.

UN officials in Bosnia say that 10,000 government fighters are massing at Mount Igman, south of Sarajevo, for an offensive to break the Serbian siege of the capital. Though still more lightly armed than the Serbs, particularly as regards artillery, the Muslims are better organised than they were last April, when the Serbs overran 70 per cent of Bosnia. Moreover, the government forces appear to have superior numbers and higher morale.

It seems likely, then, that Western air intervention could tilt the war in favour of Bosnia's Muslim-led government. But as the Serbian position in Bosnia unravels, the West will discover that other Balkan crises will come rapidly and simultaneously into focus.

Some will be in Bosnia itself. Having recognised Bosnia within its pre-war frontiers, and having denounced 'ethnic cleansing' as morally unacceptable, the West faces four tasks. First, it must try to reconstitute the state as a multi-ethnic unit with power decentralised so that minority communities feel safe. Second, it must check the natural Muslim desire for revenge against the Serbs, while helping hundreds of thousands of Muslims to return home and rebuild their lives. Third, it must reverse Croatia's de facto annexation of western Herzegovina. Last, it must forge a settlement that recognises that, for all the atrocities committed by the Serbian forces, the Serbs made up 32 per cent of Bosnia's pre-war population and, like the Muslims and Croats, will need guarantees of their status.

These are formidable challenges, but outside Bosnia lie equally great dangers. The most obvious flashpoint is Kosovo, the southern Serbian province whose ethnic Albanian majority has suffered for five years at the hands of Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic. Washington, in particular, has warned the Serbs that Kosovo is a 'line in the sand' beyond which they must not tread, for a war there is almost certain to ignite a full-scale Balkan conflict.

That is principally because it would suck in Albania itself, as well as the ethnic Albanians who make up between 20 and 40 per cent of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Instability in Macedonia - historically, a focal point of Balkan tensions - raises, in turn, the danger of Bulgarian, Greek and hence Turkish involvement. That means two Nato countries at war with each other - an unacceptable prospect for the West.

Kosovo is the Serbian cause par excellence. By stoking nationalist passions over this issue, Mr Milosevic built up his power from 1987. Kosovo was the heart of medieval Serbia and the site of a defeat against the Ottomans in 1389 that is perhaps the most emotion-charged event of Serbian history. Albanians outnumber Serbs by nine to one in Kosovo, and they voted for independence in September 1991. Though the Kosovars express less enthusiasm now than a year ago for unification with Albania, the Serbs have reason to fear that the picture may change. At the least, some protection for Serbian historical sites in Kosovo is required.

Another cause for Western concern is that Serbia's elections on 20 December saw big gains for the ultra-nationalist Radical Party and produced a victory in Kosovo for a Serbian paramilitary leader, Zeljko Raznjatovic, otherwise known as Arkan. The US wants Arkan and the Radical leader, Vojislav Seselj, to stand trial for war crimes. No one should underestimate the readiness of these two men and their followers to terrorise the Kosovo Albanians.

However, it is arguable that Western governments are overstating this possibility in order to justify the impending air assault against the Serbs. Many independent Western military experts, while acknowledging the dangers in Kosovo, believe the last thing that army officers in Belgrade want is to open a new war front when they face so many problems in Bosnia. That applies equally to Macedonia, where it seems unlikely that Serbia had any interest in inciting recent Albanian-Slav ethnic violence.

It is even more true when one considers that, three months hence, the Serbs may face a new war on two fronts in Croatia. The Croats are determined to recapture Krajina and eastern Slavonia, both lost to the Serbs in 1991. The West wants to persuade Croatia's government to extend the mandate of the UN peace-keepers in these regions. But Croatia's politicians, media and public opinion are angry with the UN operation, believing that it has served to consolidate Serbia's territorial gains. In addition, Croatia's armed forces are stronger now than in 1991 and are confident that they could exploit the deteriorating Serbian position in Bosnia.

While Western attention dwells on Kosovo and Serb-occupied Croatia, there are other flashpoints. One is the Serbian province of Vojvodina, where Serbian pressure against ethnic Hungarians is increasing. Another is the Sandzak region that straddles Serbia and Montenegro.

Control of the Sandzak is crucial to Serbia, for it leads to its only outlet to the Adriatic Sea. But more than half of the Sandzak's 440,000 people are Muslims, and those in the Serbian part voted for autonomy in 1991. Many feel culturally close to Bosnia's Muslims and even hope to merge their region with Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbian paramilitary gangs have proliferated in the Sandzak in recent months, causing the independent Belgrade magazine Vreme to observe: 'All hopes (of peace) are disappearing in waves of anarchy.'

As throughout the Yugoslav crisis, the denouement will turn on political events in Serbia itself. Mr Milosevic, the army generals and the paramilitary gangs have driven into a dead end: their push for a Greater Serbia is ultimately unsustainable, but to halt the war will bring about their downfall. More and more, the most probable outcome looks like civil war in Serbia. If that happens, the West will need to remember that not every Serb is a warmonger and there are genuine Serbian dilemmas in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo that need to be addressed.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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