Turning our backs is no option: Mass intervention in Bosnia is unlikely, but the West could at least enforce existing agreements, says Lawrence Freedman

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The Independent Online
The tragedy in Bosnia- Herzegovina deepens daily and is moving into the realm of catastrophe. Demands for an urgent escalation of the Western effort, even up to full-scale intervention, have come from such diverse sources as Ronald Reagan and an Islamic conference in Jeddah.

Most seriously of all, on Saturday, General Adnan Abdelrazek, commander of the UN peacekeeping force at Sarajevo, warned of the inability of his troops to rescue the beleaguered population and called for an ultimatum to Serbian forces to honour ceasefires or face outside intervention.

The British government is anxious to head off the drive for all- out war against Serbia. It recoils at the idea of long-term engagement in the Balkans and bolsters its caution with a number of practical objections.

Taking sides in a vicious civil war would result in casualties that could soon eat away at public support. Westerners deployed as unarmed monitors or engaged in humanitarian activities would be vulnerable to hostage-taking. Increased tension could carry the war into Kosovo and Macedonia. Countries already half-hearted in their condemnation of Serbia, such as Russia and Greece, might break with the UN consensus. Massive military forces would be required to calm the situation. Commonly cited are the number of German divisions held down by Yugoslav partisans during the Second World War, and the heavy demands of a series of counter-insurgency operations.

The terrain is admirably suited to guerrilla warfare. Military staffs suggest a force of up to 500,000 would be required. Those who favour intervention argue that Serbian forces have never held up in a fight against serious opposition, that the historical analogies are misleading, and that there is little enthusiasm in Belgrade for war with the West. However, they do not pretend there can be a quick military fix. The intractable underlying problems would demand a large-scale military presence for years to keep the peace.

Leaving aside the question of cost, there are insufficient troops in Western Europe to play this role. The search for the 'peace dividend' and sundry peacekeeping missions around the world have stretched the British and French armies. The Germans are precluded by both history and their constitution. Contributions from other Western European countries would be small-scale.

Only the Americans are capable of massive intervention, but Washington has been unwavering in its refusal to send ground forces. Although intervention in Somalia has established a precedent of sorts, President Bush is unlikely to make another similar commitment during his last days in office.

If the Somalian operation proves to be less than smooth, it is unlikely to whet appetites for a more demanding mission in Bosnia. Bill Clinton will keep General Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Powell is convinced that US forces should never be used without a precise political objective, overwhelming superiority and as clear a plan for getting out as getting in.

The Americans will probably judge that strategic interests demand decisive action only if the conflict moves into Macedonia and is about to involve Greece and Turkey.

As a result, there is little prospect of Western intervention to roll back the Serbian insurgency. It is, therefore, no kindness to sustain the Bosnian government's hopes that the clamour in the West for such an intervention will succeed.

Walking away from the tragedy is not an option, however. The consequences in terms of refugees, already pushing neighbouring countries to breaking point, and the intolerable misery for those caught in the tragedy cannot be ignored. Moreover, Britain and France have already made the decision to intervene, on a small-scale and with a narrowly defined humanitarian mission.

Statements that the Cheshire Regiment will withdraw, rather than fight their way through, simply provide the Serbs with an incentive to start shooting. Soon the Government may have to decide on an effective retreat or a change in the rules of engagement. General Abdelrazek's plea cannot be ignored. When the conference on Bosnia meets in Geneva on 16 December, some serious propositions will have to be on the table.

If it is unrealistic to devise a new strategy for Bosnia, then the current plan must at least be adhered to. It has been drained of credibility by a failure to enforce UN resolutions and brokered agreements. Reversing this will require greater commitment and involve increased risks. There may be limits on what the international community is prepared to do for Bosnia, but it must at least take seriously its commitments within those limits.

If a peace settlement is to have any chance, the warring parties must be convinced that it represents their best hope. The Bosnian government must be made to realise that it has no hope of a return to the status quo ante bellum, however legitimate its claims. The Serbs will need to be persuaded to relinquish many of their gains. Finally, there must be international guarantees that any safeguards on borders and minority rights contained in an eventual settlement will be honoured.

The restoration of credibility requires that no future proposals are put to the UN without the intention to enforce them, and that no military objectives are set if there is no hope of achieving them. This must be combined with a determination to enforce measures already agreed.

Determination can be signalled by the expected agreement on enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia. However, a real difference can only be made on the ground. An ultimatum to stop interfering with humanitarian convoys could be given added muscle by announcements of modest reinforcements from a number of countries with greater offensive capabilities. It may become neccessary to take on the Serbian forces. If this firmer approach is successful, it could be extended to breaking the sieges of Sarajevo and other towns. In the process, it would strengthen the peace initiative, without making it appear an instrument in an anti-Serbian crusade.

This approach has the potential advantage of gradually extending the area in which Bosnians can live safely, while restoring lost credibility to international peace initiatives. A massive new force would take weeks to organise and deploy, and may arrive too late.

Building on the present position avoids unreal expectations, but allows for an expanded effort should there be a resurgence of political will. None the less, the present is a wretched place to begin. This revised approach is still no more than an attempt to make the best of a bad job and could easily be overwhelmed. To compensate for all the mistakes of past policy at this stage is a tall order.

(Photograph omitted)