Leading Article: Just what is he asked to sign?

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The Independent Online
IF YOU were Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, would you sign the Geneva peace plan? The arguments for doing so look fairly strong. The strongest is that the Serbs and Croats have threatened to fight on into the winter if the agreement is not signed. Backed by the national armies of Croatia and Serbia, they have the military means to reduce even further the area allotted to the Muslims and possibly to obliterate it altogether. They could certainly reduce the country to ruins and cause hundreds of thousands more people to starve to death. Perhaps the West could muster the determination to save some of Sarajevo, but nobody can be expected to rely on that.

Looking at the Geneva plan itself, Mr Izetbegovic may reflect that it could be worse. Technically it preserves a single state with three autonomous regions, although it is difficult to believe that Serbia and Croatia will not, in effect, annex their bits. It allocates the Muslims 32 per cent of Bosnian territory, the Serbs 50 per cent and the Croats 17 per cent. Muslims made up 44 per cent of the population before the war but they tended to be concentrated in towns, so they occupied well under 44 per cent of the territory. Under the agreement they would have access to certain enclaves and to the sea, albeit through territory controlled by their enemies.

So why is Mr Izetbegovic resisting the plan? He is, of course, rightly aggrieved that it legitimises Serbian and Croatian aggression and ethnic cleansing and therefore represents a betrayal of principles that Western governments promised to uphold. He also feels that the Muslims should have more territory. But his stance is probably mainly tactical: he needs to carry with him his more militant colleagues and hopes he can still bargain for better terms.

What he does not seem to have said in public, but should say, is that it is wholly unreasonable to expect him to sign an agreement without much more detailed assurances on how much Western backing there will be for it. On 9 August the North Atlantic Council solemnly confirmed 'its willingness to participate in such implementation'. Is Mr Izetbegovic supposed to believe that this amounts to anything after the string of broken promises that lie behind it? And if he does not believe this, might he not be better advised to fight on to the bitter end rather than accept a plan that Serbia and Croatia will then feel free to ignore?

It is understandable that Nato is reluctant to give formal security guarantees to Bosnia after refusing them to Eastern Europe, but it owes it to the Bosnian Muslims to set out clear commitments on the numbers of troops it intends to commit to implementation, the scope of their responsibilities and the aid that would follow. Most important of all, it must say whether the Americans are ready to commit ground forces to peace-keeping, as Washington once promised but now seems anxious to forget. The Muslims also need reassurances on the status of their corridors to isolated enclaves and the sea. How far will these be protected by the UN? Will the Croats and Serbs be able to inspect and turn back goods or people in transit? Will arms be allowed through? Is Bosnia to be allowed weapons to defend itself? If not, why not? If so, how will the weapons reach it?

Mr Izetbegovic is being asked to sign an agreement that comes perilously close to unconditional surrender. So many vital points remain vague that he cannot possibly know what the plan would amount to in practice. In the 10 days that he has been given in which to decide, the Western powers are under a heavy obligation to make up their minds on the level of their own commitment.