Leading Article: The fall of Srebrenica

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Farce, fiasco, catastrophe, humiliation - politicians and commentators have used all these terms in the past 24 hours to describe the fall of the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia to Bosnian Serb forces. What should be done next, however, is an issue that perplexes and frustrates Western governments and public opinion as much as it has done since the Bosnian conflict broke out in 1992. The only point of agreement has been that Western countries should not try to determine the war's outcome by sending ground troops in large numbers to fight for the Muslim-led government. This decision has limited Western influence over the conflict, produced a United Nations operation in Bosnia of ambiguous purpose and thinly stretched resources, and ultimately led to setbacks such as that suffered this week at the hands of General Ratko Mladic.

The West's possible courses of action are narrowing into three choices as a result of Srebrenica's collapse and the approach of the Bosnian autumn and winter. The first option, outlined by President Jacques Chirac of France, is to use force in an attempt to recreate the Srebrenica "safe area". The West is unlikely to go down this road, partly because the 10,000- strong European-led Rapid Reaction Force in Bosnia would find it a very difficult military operation, but mainly because it would mean abandoning neutrality in favour of taking on the Serbs. It would also seem strange to fight for a tiny pocket of Muslim territory that, when a territorial settlement is finally reached, would either be awarded to the Bosnian Serbs or be permanently vulnerable to their pressure.

The second option is the route preferred by Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader and 1996 presidential candidate. He advocates pulling the UN out of Bosnia, and plans to introduce legislation next week to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government. European governments have always opposed this strategy, on the grounds that it will lead to more intense fighting in Bosnia and Croatia, may cause the war to spread into the southern Balkans, may drag in Western countries, and is likely to make the conditions facing Bosnia's Muslims even harsher. However, these arguments look less persuasive in light of the fact that fighting has intensified since last April, Western countries are already involved, and conditions in, say, Srebrenica could scarcely be worse for Muslims than they are now.

The third and most sensible option, at least at this point, is to accept that the three Muslim enclaves of eastern Bosnia have never been militarily defendable, and that it would be better for the UN to retreat to a stronger, if smaller area of government-held Bosnia. This would be centred on Sarajevo, to whose survival Western governments and Russia could pledge their support, but would also include Tuzla and Bihac. As suggested by European Union leaders at Cannes last month, the Rapid Reaction Force could help Sarajevo to avoid capitulation by securing a humanitarian aid route from the Adriatic coast to the capital.

Even this third option carries risks, notably in the shape of more wanton Bosnian Serb attacks on civilians and UN forces. But there are no risk- free choices left in Bosnia.