Just maybe, we could live with greater Serbia

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SABRE-RATTLING in Belgrade and confusion in the capitals of Europe: the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, threatens a 'popular revolt' against outside troops if Serbian aircraft are shot down. The West responds with a terrifying 'ahem'. So one question now dominates diplomatic traffic: is there an alternative to going to war in Bosnia that is not more horrible?

British ministers tend to agree with the Serbs that an offensive by outside ground troops in the Balkans would be a catastrophe. But so far the argument has tended to lapse, rather hopelessly, there. Now, for the first time, a vague yet credible picture of a possible international settlement for the former Yugoslavia is emerging from Whitehall. This is, as it were, the highest hope of the peace party, which confronts a more belligerent US State Department, French President and a relatively hawkish Foreign Office. As the alternative to military engagement, or hellish ethnic feuding, it deserves a proper hearing.

The problem can be divided into three. First, Bosnia, where Serbs, Muslims and Croats are engaged in civil and religious war. Second, Kosovo, which is legally Serbian but filled with poorly armed and discontented Albanians. Third, Macedonia, which is internationally recognised, but viewed with unremitting hostility by Greece. Uproar there would make it the cockpit of a wider Balkan war.

In Bosnia, the central military fact is that the Serbs have almost won. They have not occupied every enclave they want, nor forced Sarajevo into submission. But they have secured enough of Bosnia to create a greater Serbia, including all the main Serb-dominated areas, and reaching to the Adriatic. Therefore, says the peace party, let us accept the Serbian victory. We could enforce the no-fly zone and in other ways signal that the Serbs can go no further. If British troops protecting aid convoys were shelled after US air attacks on Serbian helicopters, which the Serbs would almost certainly plaster with red crosses, or Serbian airfields (ditto), then severe military retaliation has already been planned. But eventually, the British troops would pull back.

French belligerence, by the way, should be taken with a pinch of salt. When a senior Downing Street official phoned one of Francois Mitterrand's foreign policy advisers last week, he was told that Mr Mitterrand was determined to stop Serbian combat aircraft flying. The British official quietly pointed out that no such flights had occurred for two months. There was an embarrassed silence at the Paris end of the line. The French military, in sharp contrast to its ailing President, shares the more cautious view of the British Ministry of Defence.

If no ground war in Bosnia, then what? The thought, once unthinkable, is gaining ground that the Serbs and Croats should be allowed to annexe those parts of Bosnia where they are in the majority. The remains of the province, including Sarajevo, would become a Muslim state, protected by international guarantee and launched with a big outside aid programme. Aggression would have been rewarded. But since the Bosnian Serbs are inhabitants, not invaders, this would be better than becoming embroiled in an endless civil war.

Macedonia and Kosovo are rather different. Any future Serb invasion of Macedonia is likened by senior ministers to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: a clear violation of the rights of nations (unlike Bosnia), which could be repulsed with military intervention by the West. The Swedes have already made informal offers to place a battalion of 'observers' in Macedonia to deter the vultures.

Kosovo, the Serb province inhabited by Albanians, is compared to the southern province of Iraq, where the marsh Arabs live. As in Iraq, a combination of outside air power and military intimidation might be sufficient to prevent precipitate Serb aggression there. The international guarantee would be less real than that for Macedonia or the Islamic Republic of Lesser Bosnia, but it could be enough.

So there it is. The separation of Bosnia, and the creation of a small Islamic republic. International protection for Macedonia. Guarantees, and threats, too, to protect the Albanians of Kosovo. And, hateful though it might be, the recognition of a greater Serbia with secure boundaries and its international guarantees as well.

If that is the alternative to war, is war an alternative? Are we ready to lose our soldiers in Bosnian snowdrifts and Bosnian suburbs? Just possibly, yes. The latest Serbian threats are part of a game of bluff that could go badly wrong. The Serbian belief that there is no risk so long as they tough it out could prove badly mistaken. There have been other occasions when the caution of democracies has been mistaken for feebleness.

So far, ministers have come under virtually no pressure to be more aggressive. But if a couple of dozen British, or French, soldiers were killed by Serbian mortars, the mood could change instantly and anything could happen. Hoping to get out and actually getting out are different things. The peace party does indeed have a settlement which, though bad, might be better than a wider war. But if one thing is calculated to destroy that prospect, it is Serbian attacks on the relief convoys. Radovan Karadzic cannot force peace, though he thinks he can. But he could, even yet, provoke war. And somehow, the thought that we rely on his modest common sense is not wholly reassuring.