Three Falsehoods About Bosnia


Gorazde. -- The first snow will fall in the Balkans in seven or eight weeks, heralding a winter that will kill far more people in Bosnia than the summer's massacres. And still they hesitate.

They -- the United Nations, NATO, and above all the great powers -- didn't wait when Iraq invaded Kuwait two years ago. They aren't waiting now with their plans for a "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq to hinder Saddam Hussein's offensive against Shiite rebels.

So why didn't they declare a "no-fly" zone over all of Bosnia months ago, to stop the Serbian air force from bombing Muslim towns and villages? Why has the UN not already committed a large force to stop the horrors in Bosnia?

Because, we are told, that would be too difficult. We can't save the Bosnians like we saved the Kuwaitis (and subsequently protected the Iraqi Kurds, and are now apparently extending protection to Iraqi Shiites as well) because the situation in former Yugoslavia is different. Too complex politically, too daunting militarily.

There are three excuses advanced for not doing anything decisive about Bosnia. They are all false.

Excuse Number 1: The war in Bosnia is a civil war. All the ethnic communities are at each other's throats, and we have to wait until they wear themselves out.

Not true. The war in Bosnia is the direct result of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's policies, previously applied to Croatia. It would not have happened without him.

When Mr. Milosevic announced that he was pulling the "Yugoslav National Army" out of Bosnia in May, 85 percent of its personnel and almost all its equipment remained behind. And that army, waging war against Bosnians who are denied heavy weapons by the UN embargo, is doing 95 percent of the killing.

Before the Serbs attacked, the Muslim, Serbian and Croatian communities in Bosnia had lived together in peace and amity for almost half a century. Even now most Bosnian Serbs do not really approve of the atrocities being perpetrated in their names.

But Belgrade has given arms and power to the racists and criminals who exist among the Bosnian Serbs, as they do in any community. Few Serbian civilians in Bosnia dare to argue openly with the heavily armed thugs who claim to speak for their community, but many would not object to seeing them dethroned.

As for the Bosnian Croats, while they have seized control of parts of the country for fear that the Serbs would grab them otherwise, they have not rejected Bosnian sovereignty. They are not engaging in any policy of "ethnic cleansing," and by and large they cooperate with the Bosnian authorities.

Excuse Number 2. The war in Bosnia is a guerrilla war. Regular soldiers (like the UN's) cannot deal with that.

The heavy artillery and tanks that have pounded so many Bosnian towns to pieces and now surround Sarajevo and Gorazde are not standard issue for guerrillas. They are the property of the Yugoslav army, manned for the most part by Serbian soldiers who are still members of that army in all but name.

Even the ill-disciplined and frequently drunken irregulars who make up the bulk of the Serbian militia forces in Bosnia are in large part from Serbia or Montenegro, not from Bosnia itself. And wherever they hail from, they are certainly not "guerrillas" in the classical sense of the word.

In fact, they bear about the same relationship to real guerrilla armies like the Viet Cong that Hell's Angels bear to the Wehrmacht. The Serbian militia are quite good at killing civilians, generally from a safe distance, but professional infantry from any well-trained army would sort most of them out without a great deal of trouble.

Excuse Number 3. Military intervention in Bosnia would lead the United Nations into a quagmire.

Why do we hear that word "quagmire" so much? Because it is intended to evoke the experience of Vietnam.

But the area of Bosnia currently under Serbian control is less than one-tenth the area of Vietnam (in other words, about the size of New Hampshire, Belgium, half of Tasmania).

It is mountainous terrain, but it can certainly be controlled -- given total air superiority, a large, professional UN military force, and an incompetent, demoralized opposition which has been cut off from its sources of supply in Serbia. All of which can be arranged.

Bomb the bridges on the Drina and put aerial interdiction on a few main roads, and all the fuel stops coming in from Serbia. (While you're at it, instruct the Romanian government to enforce the UN embargo against Russian, Romanian and Greek ships that regularly sail up the Danube to replenish Serbia's oil supply.)

How many troops would the UN need to bring the situation in Bosnia under control? It could easily take 100,000 UN troops or even twice that number to do the job properly, and they might have to remain in Bosnia for several years.

But the gulf operation took a larger force than that, and was judged worthwhile. The NATO powers alone currently have around 4 million soldiers under arms. The Cold War is over, so what are they saving themselves for? An invasion from Mars?

The Serbian army is inefficient and corrupt, and the Serbian regime is tyrannical, weak and unloved. A decisive UN intervention might bring a quick change of government in Belgrade. At the least it would rescue Bosnia from its present horrors and allow rebuilding to begin before winter comes.

Why haven't they done it yet? Myths, lies, sloth, cynicism and a certain amount of sheer cowardice. When will they finally do it? Later this year -- but maybe too late, for the third Balkan war is on its way.

Gwynne Dyer writes a syndicated column on foreign affairs.

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