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Whether Muslim nations would help Bosnia is issue in arms-embargo debate


WASHINGTON -- Watching with horror the aggression of the Bosnian Serbs, the Islamic world is stepping up pressure on government leaders to help the besieged and outgunned Bosnian Muslims.

But when it comes to serious military assistance, most Muslim countries either won't be able to afford to send troops, heavy weapons or money, or will recoil like the United States from becoming embroiled in a Balkan war, several experts say.

The Muslim world's role in Bosnia is becoming a central issue in the growing debate in Washington and Europe over whether the beleaguered United Nations peacekeeping force should withdraw and the U.N.-imposed arms embargo be lifted.

Supporters of both moves say that sympathetic, moderate Muslim countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan would enter the breach, providing much of the money and training that the Bosnian Muslims need.

Advocates of lifting the embargo make this case to counter the Clinton administration's argument that a lifting of the arms embargo by the United States would "Americanize" the war, putting the burden on the United States for supplying weapons, training and perhaps ground troops.

There is no doubt that the Muslim world's protest against what it perceives as unfair treatment of the Bosnian Muslims is loud and growing louder.

"It's the Number 1 domestic issue in most Muslim countries," said a Persian Gulf diplomat, who declined to be quoted by name.

"The perception is that it has been allowed to go on because Muslims are dying."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa reprimanded the U.N. Security Council last week for failing to protect Bosnians in U.N.-declared "safe areas" and to halt Serb ethnic cleansing.

Last Friday, leading nations in the Organization of the Islamic Conference declared the U.N. embargo "invalid."

Bosnian Foreign Minister Mohammed Sacirbey, who was at the OIC's Geneva meeting, said he was given pledges of weaponry.

And Saudi Arabia's government, in a statement Monday, said Muslim states should launch a collective effort to force the advancing Serbs to "immediately halt their aggressive plots."

A telethon in Jordan last week raised about $7 million for Bosnia.

In Europe, which watches uneasily as radical Islamist militants battle government forces in nearby North Africa, many worry that Muslim help for Bosnia may well prove an unwelcome development.

"Europeans don't like the idea of the Islamic world gaining a strategic foothold in Europe," says Patrick Glynn, a foreign affairs specialist at the American Enterprise Institute.

Officials usually avoid stressing this point publicly.

But France's former defense minister, Francois Leotard, warned last December in Washington that if peacekeepers withdrew from Bosnia, one unhappy consequence would be that "it would bring Islamic forces into this area."

But the Muslim world's involvement may turn out to be more clamor than action.

"None of these countries, for all their pronouncements, have that much interest in this conflict," says Mr. Glynn.

"I have my doubts," adds Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. He notes that past rallying points for Muslims -- the plight of Palestinians, Lebanon and, recently, the breakaway Muslim republic of Chechnya in Russia -- failed to draw broad support from Muslim governments.

Muslim forces succeeded in ousting the Soviet army from Afghanistan only because of heavy financial support and weaponry from the United States and its ally, Saudi Arabia, he noted.

The Saudis and other Persian Gulf states are already sending tens of millions of dollars annually to the Bosnians, helping them buy East bloc machine guns and other small arms on the black market.

In fact, the Bosnians' fund-raising may have been helped by a widespread sense that they have been deprived of the means to defend themselves.

"Being embargoed gives you a better claim to Islamic help," says Edward Luttwak, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

But to even the odds against the Serbs, the Bosnians will need armor, including tanks, as well as such sophisticated equipment as mortar-locating radars, to show the source of incoming shells, that aren't available on the black market, he says.

And they will need training and spare parts.

All this may be much more than the Muslim world can afford.

The gulf countries now have nowhere near the excess cash they could dispense during the Afghan war, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in 1992.

And other major Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, are in such dire economic straits that they would be unable to contribute much, if anything.

And for them to donate or lend their American-supplied military equipment, the United States would have to waive restrictions on transshipment.

Getting the heavy equipment to the Bosnians would pose another problem, since it would have to come through Croatia, whose alliance with its Muslim neighbors has been shaky.

As for troops, Bosnia's supporters insist that the Muslims don't need them, since they already outnumber the Serbs.

But this could change if the Muslim-Croat alliance collapses or if the Yugoslav army, based in Serbia proper, gets deeply into the fighting.

And Bosnian officials indicate they would welcome having certain countries keep their peacekeeping troops in Bosnia even after the U.N. force officially departs.

While thousands of troops from Muslim countries are now in the former Yugoslavia as part of the peacekeeping force, their presence is paid for by the United Nations, a bill for which the United States picks up 30 percent.

Despite offers of help from Pakistan and other Muslim states, few of them are likely to be able to pay to keep their soldiers in Bosnia for a lengthy period.

And while some would be willing to stay as peacekeepers under the auspices of the Islamic Conference, they're less willing to fight the Serbs.

"We have to remember that there are economic and domestic political constraints that may inhibit some of these countries from getting dragged into a long, draining war," says Phebe Marr, a senior fellow at the National Defense University here.

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