The War in Bosnia Won't Go Away, and Choices Won't Get Any Easier


Washington -- Every time the war in Bosnia falls from public view, it invariably comes back to dominate the headlines and nightly news.

And each new crisis adds another layer of complexity to an already confusing situation.

Here, then, is a basic guide to the conflict.

The background

From the end of World War II through 1990, Yugoslavia was a patchwork of nationalities and religions held together by a Communist dictatorship. At the end of the Cold War, the federation pulled apart as tensions dating from the Middle Ages flared up.

War broke out first in Croatia, between the new Croatian government and minority Serbs allied with the republic of Serbia. The Croats are Roman Catholics, the Serbs Orthodox Christians. Memories of World War II, when Croats aligned themselves with Nazi Germany, run deep, adding to the mutual enmity.

The two sides fought to a standstill, with Croatia's government dominating most of the country but Serbs still holding a large chunk and hoping to link up with Serbs elsewhere to create a Greater Serbia.

When Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence, war quickly erupted there in 1992. Bosnia's Serb minority, inspired and supplied by Serbia, fought the Muslim-led Bosnian government and a Croat minority for control of the nation's territory, eventually gaining 70 percent. At various times, Croats in Bosnia have fought both Muslims and Serbs.

Far more than the conflict in Croatia, the Bosnian war pricked the world's conscience, for several reasons:

Atrocities there were the worst Europe had witnessed since World War II. Serbs are blamed for most of them and are widely seen in the United States as the aggressors. The term "ethnic cleansing," meaning the forced transfer or slaughter of a population based on religion or nationality, has been added to the lexicon of modern warfare.

The Serbian siege of Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, became a tragic symbol of the war's horrors, not just because its population was suffering but because the city had been a tolerant, multi-ethnic society where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together peaceably.

The United Nations has maintained an arms embargo against all sides. In practical terms, this penalized the Bosnian Muslims, since they lacked a large stockpile and manufacturing base.

The situation now

Using a variety of tactics, from shelling civilian areas to taking U.N. peacekeepers hostage, Serbs seem determined to hold on to the large swath of Bosnia and the part of Croatia they already control. But Bosnia's Muslim-led army, covertly aided by Muslim countries, is gaining strength in training and weaponry and may be preparing a new offensive. Bosnia's Muslim and Croat fighters, together with the Bosnian and Croatian governments, have formed an uneasy alliance. Serbia has distanced itself from the Bosnian Serbs, but is still suspected of supplying weaponry and money.

The role of the United Nations

Trying to keep peace in a land so obviously at war, the United Nations' hands are tied. Its 22,000 lightly armed soldiers are supposed to protect relief convoys and Muslim enclaves and keep the Serbs from using their tanks and heavy artillery. But they have only been able to do so when they have won cooperation from the Serbs, often by giving the Serbs a cut of food and medicine from the convoys. A new French-British quick-reaction force, intended to prevent further "humiliation" at the Serbs' hands, seems unlikely to do much more than protect or rescue peacekeepers in trouble.

The role of NATO

The U.S.-led alliance polices an economic embargo against Serbia, prevents Serbian aircraft from attacking Muslim areas and is available to bomb Serbian targets in Bosnia if called in by the United Nations. But its member countries want to avoid an all-out war against the Serbs.

The key players

* Alija Izetbegovic, president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, heads the Muslim-dominated government headquartered in Sarajevo.

* Haris Siladzic, Bosnia's prime minister, is the government's chief envoy to the outside world and has good connections in Washington.

* Franjo Tudjman, president of Croatia, is trying to prevent Serbs from carving out their own independent region of Croatia near the Bosnian border.

* Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, heads the largest single nation in the former Yugoslavia. He is widely viewed as the inspiration behind the Serbs' drive in Croatia and Bosnia to create a Greater Serbia. Western powers hope to drive a wedge between him and the Bosnian Serbs.

* Radovan Karadzic, political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, heads a quasi-government in Pale.

* Ratko Mladic is the Bosnian Serbs' military chief.

* Yasushi Akashi, the chief U.N. envoy in the former Yugoslavia, has a strong say in what U.N. peacekeepers and NATO can do.

The mediators

* Contact Group: This includes diplomats from the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Russia. They are trying to get all sides to agree to a division of Bosnia that would give the Serbs 49 percent of the country and the Bosnians and Croats 51 percent. Within this group, the United States sympathizes with the Muslims, Russia has historic ties with the Serbs and Germany has ties with Croatia. Britain and France don't favor any side.

* United Nations and European Union: Thorvald Stoltenberg for the United Nations and Carl Bildt for the EU are supposed to be impartial.

U.S. policy

The Clinton administration wants, above all, to prevent the conflict from spreading and to prevent U.S. ground troops from becoming embroiled in fighting. But it is committed to sending about 25,000 U.S. troops to help an eventual withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers. The administration says the conflict can't be settled militarily but only through negotiations. It wants to maintain an arms embargo that keeps the Muslims from obtaining heavy weapons.

Congress wants to avoid sending in U.S. ground troops. But a substantial majority in the House, and many senators, favor arming Bosnia's Muslim-led army.

The outlook

Two trends are taking shape: British and French officials sound increasingly frustrated with the U.N. peacekeeping mission and hint strongly at a pullout starting this fall. And pressure from Congress appears likely to erode, if not eliminate, the arms embargo imposed on Bosnia's Muslims, allowing them to gain increasing strength. Thus, more fighting looms.

The choices

* Status quo: This means keeping U.N. troops on the ground, keeping heavy weapons out of the hands of the Muslims, keeping Serbia from supplying its Bosnian Serb brethren and pushing for a diplomatic solution. Favored by the Clinton administration, this strategy is losing political support in Washington and seems to be running out of steam.

* Lift the embargo: This is the course advocated by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who is running for president, and by many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Opposed are President Clinton and most European countries. Lifting the embargo could force the Serbs to negotiate more seriously. Alternately, it could ignite such fierce fighting that Serbia would rejoin the war and the conflict could spread. A wider Balkan war, possibly involving Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Albania, is America's and Europe's nightmare.

* Overwhelming force: This would mean sending tens or hundreds of thousands of NATO ground troops, including Americans, into Bosnia to subdue the country and force the warring sides to reach a settlement. Only one U.S. politician, Indiana Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar (another presidential candidate), is strongly advocating this course, arguing that European security, the future of NATO and American world leadership are at stake. But if the war spreads, it could become inevitable.

Mark Matthews is The Baltimore Sun's diplomatic correspondent.

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