Leading Article: Too early to settle

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The Independent Online
THE British government is coming round to the view that the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot be reconstituted, that most Serbian gains must be accepted, and that Western efforts should therefore be devoted to the more limited task of creating a safe haven for Bosnian Muslims. This would then become a small Islamic republic under international protection, while the rest of the state would be divided between Serbia and Croatia.

The attraction of such a policy is that it looks more realistic than clinging to the fiction of a state that no longer exists. It would presumably avert the intervention of Islamic states, which has been threatened for mid- January. There is a fair chance that the Serbs would accept it because they have already acquired about all the territory they want. They now fear a Muslim counter-offensive combined with renewed efforts by the Croats to recover lost territories.

If the West takes this option, which amounts to admitting defeat, it should be quite clear what it is doing. It will be announcing that, despite its enormous resources, it has been unable to prevent a bunch of armed gangsters illegally seizing territory by force, changing frontiers, murdering, raping and expelling civilians and gaining international recognition for what they have done. It will expose all the Western bodies that have involved themselves in the war, particularly the European Community, as ineffectual, nave, divided, hypocritical talking shops that are unprepared to back up their principles with action, even to the extent of enforcing effective sanctions. This message will be conveyed to every other nationalist demagogue in the Balkans and beyond, guaranteeing more ethnic cleansing.

Yes, say officials, that is all very true and distressing, but where is a realistic alternative? The question is legitimate. Public support for intervention in Bosnia would evaporate fast if British soldiers were being killed with no victory in sight. The quagmire scenario must be taken seriously. If the West really has been defeated, the sooner it admits it the better. Self-delusion is worse, especially if it gives false hopes to the Muslims.

Still worse, however, would be to give up too soon. The Serbs in Bosnia are not as strong as they seem. They have prevailed because they have had access to arms from their own resources and from Serbia, whereas the Muslims have been hit by the Western embargo. But local stocks are diminishing and indigenous arms industries are barely functioning, while food production has been disrupted. Serbian forces in northern Bosnia have become heavily dependent on food and ammunition brought to them through the very narrow gap at Brcko, which the Muslims are near to closing. Probably quite small quantities of the right sort of weaponry supplied to the Muslims, plus effective sanctions on Serbia and enforcement of the no-fly zone, would tip the balance against the Serbs, who are ill-trained and poorly led.

Given the precarious state of Serbia itself, regardless of the outcome of tomorrow's election, the turn of the military tide would undermine the credibility of Slobodan Milosevic, who has gained enormously from being able to thumb his nose at the West with impunity. His home base is now tottering on the brink of chaos, so his generals may be reluctant to start wars on other fronts. The greatest danger would be to the humanitarian convoys, the soldiers who guard them and the people who depend on them for survival. For this reason a carefully measured campaign of attrition against the Serbs, both in Bosnia and Serbia, would be more effective and less risky than a dramatic confrontation. Enforcing the no-fly zone would be a start because it would curtail the movement of supplies. Medical flights could be allowed, if open to inspection to prevent cheating. Hostile acts towards Western forces would be met with swift and sharp retaliation.

If the Serbian leadership began to become reasonable, the West might be wise not to insist on peace terms liable to engender decades of bitter resentment and guerrilla war. It could partially accept the results of the war by promising autonomous regions to the Bosnian Serbs. Many do not want to join Serbia; instead they could be offered the option of some form of special relationship. Bosnian Croats could have a similar relationship with Croatia. This would amount to a revised version of the cantonisation negotiated before the fighting broke out. It would allow the Serbs a face-saving claim that they had saved their communities from persecution. Ideal it would not be, but better than a humiliating defeat for the West.