New Statesman & Society leader, 15 April 1994

This week’s attacks by Nato bombers on Serb positions around the beseiged Bosnian government enclave of Gorazde are welcome. By using military force against the invading Serbian armies, the west has done what it should have been doing for two years, ever since the Serbs began their brutal campaign of territorial aggrandisement and ethnic cleansing against the recognised, democratic, multi-ethnic Bosnian state.

But this week’s actions were not enough. The intention was not to defend the legitimate government of Bosnia against aggression: the reason that the bombers went in was simply that Gorazde had been declared a United Nations “safe area” and yet was about to fall to the Serbs, an outcome that would have demonstrated to the world (and might yet do so) that the UN’s Bosnia policy is wholly inadequate to the task of resisting the creation of a fascist Greater Serbia by Slobodan Milosevic and his psycopathic Bosnian Serb puppets. And because the intervention was intended to save face rather than to confront the root problem, there is a real danger that the UN will cave in now that the Serbs have decided to cut up rough.

Whereas Nato’s downing of four Serb war-planes at the end of February seemed to cow the aggressors, the latest action was denounced as “a joint Nato-Muslim assault” by the Bosnian Serbs, who have threatened to shoot down Nato aircraft if there are any more attacks. On Tuesday, dozens of UN personnel were held hostage or forcefully confined to their offices by Bosnian Serb soldiers. The Serbs have tightened their siege on the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, barring the UN from entering or leaving the city, and there are few signs that they are preparing to reduce their military activity elsewhere.

Already, there are signs of panic in the western establishment that it could be forced not only to take sides in what it has always described as a “civil war” among “warring factions” but also – horror of horrors – to take the side of the militarily weaker party in the conflict. David Owen, whose plans for the partition of Bosnia along ethnic lines gave such encouragement to Serb aggression, has dropped everything to go to flatter again his good friend Radovan Karadzic in the cause of peace at any price. British and French officials are reported to be “worried” by the prospects of escalation. And US President Bill Clinton – whose declaration earlier this month that ground troops would not be used to save Gorazde can only have prompted the Serbs to believe that nothing too serious would happen to them if they took the town – has warned the Bosnian government that it should not take advantage of the air raid to mount new offensives.

Given the west’s history of prevarication and procrastination over Bosnia, it would be no surprise if the apparent toughening of the Serb position provokes a climbdown – particularly if Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose preservation is the number one US foreign policy priority, persuades Clinton that facing down the Serbs will inevitably lead, via an upsurge in pan-Slavic nationalism in Russia, to growing support for Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But there are sound reasons for calling the Serbs’ bluff.

If the Serbs are appeased once again, the possibility of recreating a multi-ethnic, democratic, secular Bosnia with the borders recognised in 1992 – now a slim chance, it has to be admitted, but nevertheless still there – will disappear forever. What the Serbs want the west to believe is that the choice in Bosnia is between a negotiated partition, in which they give up a little of the land they have seized in return for “peace”, and a continuing war in which they take more and more territory unless the west commits massive ground forces to the defence of Bosnia. Hence the bluster this week, with the suggestion that the Serbs will effectively declare war on the international community if it continues to resist Serb territorial aggrandisement and to refuse partition (at least on Serbian terms, if not in principle). If the west is bounced into suing for peace, partition, on terms favourable to the aggressors, is inevitable.

But there is an alternative. The Serbs are by no means as militarily strong as they would have us believe. Even though the Bosnian government has been denied arms by the idiotic UN embargo on “all sides”, it has managed to survive the Serbian assault for two years. With the explicit support of the west – most importantly through the lifting of the arms embargo, but also, if the Bosnians request it, through intervention to defend a sovereign government against aggression – it is not inconceivable that the Bosnian government could force the Serbs on to the defensive, just as it forced the Zagreb-sponsored Bosnian Croat armies to retreat.

As everyone knows, the result of the Bosnian army’s successes against the Croat insurgency was Zagreb’s agreement (under US pressure) to accept a ceasefire and a multiethnic Bosnian federation. It is not hopelessly Utopian to suggest that the Serbs might knuckle under in precisely the same way. But for that to happen, western policy towards Bosnia needs to be changed, and changed fast. First, the west has to make it clear that it is indeed on the side of the Bosnian government, and that it will not accept ethnic partition of Bosnia or the creation of a greater Serbia. Then it has to back these principles with actions: removing from official positions David Owen and the rest of the gang of appeasers who have done such damage in the past two years, offering military support to the Bosnian government if it requests it, and, most important of all, dropping the embargo on arms sales to the Bosnian government.

In short, there is an opportunity today for the west to make amends for its shabby treatment of Bosnia in the first two years of its agony. It is, however, a last opportunity. If the appeasers’ counsel is followed, it really will be too late.

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