New Statesman & Society leader, 16 September 1994

Not for the first time, Bosnia faces a critical month – and, not for the first time, the story we are being told about it by the majority of the British media bears scant relationship to the truth

According to the received wisdom – and at times it’s almost as if it were dictated by the Foreign Office directly to the leader-writers and television commentators – the danger now is that the fragile peace among the “warring factions” will collapse as a result of the intransigence of the Bosnian Serbs, who, unlike the Bosnian Muslims and Croats, have refused to accept the peace plan put together by the “contact group” of big powers, whereby Bosnia would be split in half between the Serbs, on the one hand, and the Muslims and Croats, on the other. To make matters worse, the United States is promising to lift the arms embargo on the (mainly Muslim) Bosnian government next month if the Bosnian Serbs do not accept the plan.

The upshot, according to the received wisdom, is that the two key priorities are, first of all, to persuade Radovan Karadzic and his Bosnian Serbs to change their minds; and, secondly, to persuade the US not to do anything so rash as lifting the arms embargo. In line with this, the British and French are using a mixture of carrot and stick on the Bosnian Serbs, leaning on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to lean on Karadzic, and promising a tightening of sanctions on the Bosnian Serbs if they don’t comply. Meanwhile, the British and French have threatened to with-draw their troops from the country if Bill Clinton lifts the arms embargo.

There has been barely a squeak of protest against this British and French strategy – yet the best that can be hoped is that it fails completely. It is utterly misconceived, not just in principle but in just about every detail. At root, of course, as NSS has argued consistently, the problem is that the British and French have always seen the Bosnian war as essentially a civil war, rather than what it is:

a war of aggression by the Bosnian Serbs, backed by Serbia, against an internationally recognised multi-ethnic democratic state. It is because of this misunderstanding that the British and French have been so tied to the idea that the solution to the crisis in Bosnia is some sort of “equitable” ethnic partition.

It should have become clear by now that this whole approach is not only repugnant, but is also doomed to failure because of its total misapprehension of the nature and aims of both Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs. Put simply, the Milosevic regime is a brutal expansionist dictatorship that will do anything to realise the dream of a Greater Serbia; and Karadzic, whatever appearances to the contrary, is Milosevic’s puppet. Neither Milosevic nor Karadzic will settle for an “equitable” division of Bosnia: they want, if not the lot, then everything they have grabbed already and more besides. And they will play every diplomatic game to achieve their goal.

Right now, that means Milosevic posing as sweet reason, backing the latest partition plan, and Karadzic doing the hard-liner act. The purpose is to seduce the allies into removing the economic embargo on Serbia, which is currently the major obstacle to the achievement of Serbia’s war aims and a source of growing popular discontent – and so far the strategem has worked perfectly.

Of course, the price for Milosevic is having to disown Karadzic – but mere words are cheap. Anyone who believes that there is now an unbridgeable gap between Milosevic and Karadzic, or that Milosevic will really participate in a blockade of the Bosnian Serbs, is living in a fantasy land. And in any case, if the worst comes to the worst, there’s always the option of Karadzic being “persuaded” by Milosevic to back the partition plan.

After all, it does legitimise the Serbs’ land-grab in Bosnia, even if it doesn’t give them everything they want. And it wouldn’t necessarily be forever: once the gaze of the international communitv was averted, it would be relatively easy to start the invasion anew. In the meantime, the Serbian dictator could bask in the glow of international acclaim as a man of peace. His position thus strengthened, Milosevic could turn confiden-tly to his next project, the “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo and Macedonia.

The alternative to the bolstering of Milosevic through appeasement is simple: inflicting on his vile regime and its Bosnian Serb satellite a decisive military defeat. The Bosnian army is potentially in a position to do just that if it can acquire the arms – but it isn’t quite ready yet. According to military experts, it needs another two or three months before launching a winter offensive against the Serbs’ relatively immobile heavy tanks and artillery. In the meantime, Bosnia remains reliant on UN protection.

Which is why the British and French threat to withdraw their troops if the US lifts the arms embargo is doubly vicious. Lifting the arms embargo might not be completely necessary for the Bosnians to acquire the arms they need: since the peace deal between the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Croats, there has been a substantial flow of arms to Bosnia through Croatia. But lifting the embargo would undoubtedly be a major boost to the Bosnians’ fighting strength – and, given the Bosnian Serbs’ intransigence, there can be no excuse for refusing to do it.

For Britain and France to oppose the lifting of the embargo would be bad enough; to back up the opposition with the threat of withdrawal is little short of criminal. As Britain and France know, UN withdrawal from Bosnia would be tantamount to an invitation for the Serbs to take Sarajevo and the other beseiged Bosnian cities. It is true that lifting of the arms embargo would necessitate a different, more active and explicitly pro-government, role for foreign troops in Bosnia: but Britain and France should be spending the next few weeks working out what that role should be, not preparing to pull out.

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