Sarajevo could yet be saved: The West has the means to prevent a final Serbian victory - but how? Edward Cowan proposes a strategy

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The Independent Online
OUR SOCIETY, open and largely free of ethnic, nationalist and religious tensions, is the priceless treasure that we have inherited from the generations who fought to preserve our nation and the values it upholds in world affairs. The Bishop of Barking has reminded us of our moral heritage and the fact that it cannot be preserved by a selfish and insular desire to avoid facing the real issue that Bosnia poses: the dismemberment of a sovereign nation, recognised in 1992 by the world community, through aggressive military action supported by neighbouring states, chiefly Serbia.

As long ago as the 1992 summit of the Group of Seven industrialised nations, Western leaders recognised the legitimate authority of the multi-ethnic government in Sarajevo and Douglas Hurd, at the conclusion of the London Conference in September 1992, said that Bosnia-Herzegovina should not be partitioned between neighbour states. Despite all that has been said by Western leaders, however, it has been impossible for Lord Carrington, Cyrus Vance, Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg to negotiate a continuation of that nation, albeit in a modified confederal form, because they have been denied the ultimate sanction of diplomacy - a credible military deterrent for use against the primary aggressor: Serbia.

But what constitutes a credible military deterrent? Why not, for example, continue an 'arm's length' approach to the war by lifting the arms embargo on Bosnian government forces and letting them do their own fighting? Mr Hurd had a succinct answer: 'Because you would create a level killing field'. To some extent, I am in sympathy with that view. Allowing the Bosnian government forces fight for themselves would help to create a struggle between incompetent equals similar to the First World War or the Iran-Iraq conflict. In the context of Sarajevo's plight - with the first snows of its second winter under siege just four months away - such action would anyway come too late to prevent the city's fall.

The theory of deterrence is founded on the notion of one side using force against the other, thereby producing such losses as to render victory by the latter impossible. At this stage in the Bosnian war, only the West has the means at hand to prevent a final Serbian victory - but how?

After much agonising, President Clinton has returned once again to the concept of air strikes. Without doubt, the United Nations, and more particularly Nato reconnaissance aircraft, as well as other intelligence-gathering agencies, will have established the precise locations of Serb gun and mortar sites, ammunition dumps and some key points in their command and control network. The Serbs, with their lack of military professionalism, dependence on road transport and a certain disbelief in Western threats of force, would therefore offer a variety of targets to an initial widespread UN air offensive.

Unfortunately, such action would result in collateral damage and reprisals against UN ground forces (including the probable shelling of the main British base in central Bosnia), while failing to remove the Serb forces which are adjacent to safe areas and convoy routes. Any humanitarian aid would certainly cease in all Serb-controlled areas. Sarajevo would continue to starve. Not surprisingly, UN commanders on the ground have expressed their opposition to this American proposal. Does that therefore close the matter?

Yesterday, Mr Hurd said again that 'air strikes could be helpful', but that they had to be related to what was going on on the ground. He was backing the European military and political view that using air strikes in defence of UN troops was a reasonable policy and one that the Serbs would respect, thus helping to ensure the safety of UN troops - a form of mini-deterrence. He was also speaking in the knowledge that the UN now has Forward Air Controllers in place on the ground. These servicemen are equipped and trained to direct fighter ground attack aircraft with precision on to observed targets, using radios and laser target-markers.

In the mountainous country surrounding Sarajevo, in the other safe areas and along established convoy routes, their ability to operate would be restricted by their 'line of sight'. To be fully effective, they would need access to high ground or helicopters, or to be escorted by deep penetration patrols at a distance of up to 20 or more kilometres (12 miles), to locate hostile artillery.

The use of air power by itself has a poor record as a war winner. Soldiers do not surrender territory to aircraft, only to superior ground forces that are supported by air power. This was true of the Gulf campaign and has been the case right back to the Spanish Civil War. Should Western public opinion change the political aim to preventing the final defeat of the Bosnian government and the triumph of Serb aggression, the role of the UN ground force would have to be entirely recast.

Military commanders like to be told 'what they are meant to be doing', to paraphrase Field Marshal Sir Richard Vincent's remark about Bosnia some months ago; they need to know the political aim. A minimal one in the context of the current situation might be 'to preserve the territorial integrity of a viable Bosnian nation', leaving open for negotiation its exact boundaries in relation to a greater Serbia or a greater Croatia. Some will argue that that is not enough - a view I respect. However, it would at least allow for the raising of the sieges of Sarajevo and other safe areas and the securing of convoy routes more particularly from Ploce on the coast, via Mostar, to Sarajevo.

What of the detailed military means to accomplish these tasks? First, safe areas need to be made safe. No area, let alone a city, is secure unless the besiegers are forced to withdraw and are kept clear. That can be accomplished only by securing a perimeter to prevent hostile machine, tank and levelled anti-aircraft gunfire raking streets and buildings, and by denying artillery and mortar crews (and their observers) a view of the target.

The force to secure a perimeter is normally based on infantry manning defensive positions, supported by artillery and limited armour, covering natural and man-made obstacles such as wire and minefields to stop penetration. Some economies in the use of ground troops can be achieved by aggressive patrolling and maximum use of ground and air surveillance devices looking beyond the perimeter into an 'exclusion zone'. This area could be delineated by the UN out to 20 or 30 kilometres (12-18 miles), from where any hostile force, particularly artillery, might be attacked. .

Convoy routes defended in a similar manner would be even more expensive in manpower and equipment. Only key points and high ground would merit permanent occupation, but an unmanned exclusion zone either side of the route, patrols and ground and air surveillance with similar rules of engagement against hostile forces should provide a reasonable basis for security.

It is the often-repeated statement of British government ministers that our ground force contingent to Bosnia cannot and will not be increased. The French say much the same and other European and UN member state armies do not have the capability and training required. Where, then, is the answer?

Both the British and French armies have the necessary forces for an increased short-term ground force deployment. The long-term security of the Bosnian nation lies in retraining and arming their forces so that they may look after their own security under UN command.

Only the immediate deployment of a well-balanced ground force of up to 40,000 men, led by Britain and France, backed by air power, will save Sarajevo through this coming winter. The Bishop of Barking is therefore right to call for the use of force - both ground and air. Will the UN and our leaders, in the interests of further expedience, avoid the difficult decisions that lie ahead if aggression is to be denied its final victory in Bosnia, or will they now give serious consideration to the deployment of further ground forces supported by air power to secure the remnants of the Bosnian nation?

Edward Cowan served as British Defence Attache in Yugoslavia from 1987 to 1990.

(Photograph and map omitted)