WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, crammed into protected enclaves, depend for survival on aid convoys running a gantlet past hostile Serbs. The siege of Sarajevo now has lasted longer than Leningrad's 900 days in World War II.
"Ethnic cleansing," indiscriminate killing and raping go on. In the northern Bosnian areas under Serbian control, many non-Serbs who are not expelled are pulled into work gangs. "Ethnic terror continues," states a recent United Nations report.
As Bosnians enter a third harsh winter of warfare, their suffering has taken on the quality of background noise, having long since lost the power to shock. And the man widely believed to have inspired the war's genocidal aggression, Slobodan Milosevic, is working his way back into world respectability.
The president of Serbia, whose government armed Bosnian Serb fighters in their drive to seize 70 percent of Bosnia, won an easing of international sanctions by closing Serbia's border with Bosnia and largely cutting off weapons and fuel to pressure Bosnian Serbs to make peace.
A further relaxation of sanctions is likely if he submits to U.S. and European pressure to accept neighboring Croatia's boundaries and settle a simmering conflict in another part of the former Yugoslavia, the Serb-dominated Croatian territory of Krajina.
The West is turning to Mr. Milosevic in a renewed drive to end, or at least suspend, a war that is tearing at the Atlantic alliance, heightening tensions with Russia and eating away at European security.
The shift comes as Bosnia's long-outgunned Muslim-led army, freed of having to fight a separate war against the Croats, is gaining ground against the Serbs in northwest Bosnia. Although the territory gained so far is not significant, the Bosnians' recent victory gave them a major morale boost and helped assure that the war will last into next year unless a diplomatic solution ends it.
The new Western strategy has three parts:
* A squeeze, with Serbia's help, on Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, who balks at a U.S.-European-Russian plan to force Serbs to surrender some war gains and accept a carve-up of Bosnia, with 51 percent going to a Bosnian-Croatian federation.
* Heavier air strikes against Bosnian Serbs when they violate weapons-free zones or interfere with aid convoys.
* An agreement between Serbia and Croatia, which fought a war against each other before Bosnia exploded in early 1992.
Behind the Western drive is the sense that both the United States and its European allies stand at a precipice in dealing with the conflict.
For President Clinton, Bosnia remains a symbol of ineptitude in world affairs that detracts attention from recent U.S. triumphs in DTC dealing with Haiti, Iraq and North Korea.
Congress is pressuring Mr. Clinton to back up his rhetoric and lift the arms embargo that has deprived Bosnia's Muslim-led army of heavy weapons.
In response to this pressure, the Clinton administration has put Bosnia policy under new management.
The aggressive and well-connected new assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, Richard Holbrooke, has put in his own Bosnia team. And he displays a new determination, telling National Public Radio recently: "I think we can do better, and we've got to try."
But Mr. Holbrooke can't get past the same problems that bedeviled his predecessors: deep policy splits with Europe and Washington's refusal to commit U.S. forces to end the war.
The European countries and Russia strenuously oppose a lifting of the arms embargo, saying it would escalate the conflict, force a withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers and possibly cause a a wider regional war.
By threatening to withdraw their peacekeepers if the arms embargo is lifted, Britain and France forced the Bosnians to ask for a six-month postponement. And they warned that the withdrawal of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers from out-of-reach Bosnian pockets would require a heavy military operation by NATO, and could well require U.S. ground troops. This would force Mr. Clinton to eat his oft-repeated refusal to send in U.S. soldiers before a peace agreement is reached.
Enter Mr. Milosevic.
Neither Americans nor Europeans make any effort to gloss over the Serbian president's abysmal human rights record.
A senior Clinton administration policy-maker states that "none of us is under any illusion" that Mr. Milosevic has abandoned his long-term ambition of creating a Greater Serbia. Instead, officials say, the Serbian leader wants to shore up his domestic political position by rescuing n economy devastated by two years of U.N. economic sanctions.
The senior U.S. policy-maker said Mr. Milosevic is "momentarily and tactically" joining with the United States, European powers and Russia in isolating Mr. Karadzic.
The shift outrages Bosnia's U.S. supporters. Stephen Walker, who quit the State Department to protest U.S. policy and now runs the American Committee to Save Bosnia, says the U.N. regime for monitoring whether Serbia has sealed its border is "a farce."
Mr. Milosevic's only reason for squeezing Bosnia's Serbs now, Mr. Walker says, is to jettison Mr. Karadzic and keep himself in charge of the drive for a Greater Serbia.
Concessions to Serbia may not stop with an easing of sanctions. France's foreign minister, Alain Juppe, has spoken approvingly of a confederation of Bosnia's Serbs and Serbia proper to counterbalance the Bosnian-Croatian federation.
Whether the gambit will produce a durable agreement is questionable.
Meanwhile, recent Serbian blocking of fuel deliveries has raised fears that aid distribution could be imperiled this winter.
And Bosnian Muslim battlefield gains have been matched by ugly signs of intolerance and discrimination among some Muslim government officials, according to human rights monitors.
"In the Balkans, the worst case always seems to take place," says the U.S. policy-maker.