After 2 years, NATO crosses the line, but is it taking sides?


BERLIN -- By lashing out against Serbian targets across Bosnia, the NATO alliance yesterday leaped across a line its members had been nudging timidly for more than two years in the former Yugoslavia.

"We've moved from peacekeeping to peacemaking," said Ken Petrie, analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "We've crossed that invisible line."

In crossing that line, the air and artillery bombardments have destroyed far more than missile sites and ammunition dumps. For the moment, they've also wiped out a host of entrenched and embarrassing patterns of behavior the world has come to expect in Bosnia.

"All of us here in Belgrade got so used to to the empty threats [of the U.N.] and the pinprick attacks [by NATO] that no one expected this," said Milos Vasic, the writer who follows Bosnia for Vreme, an independent news weekly in Serbia's capital. "Now it's all new rules. It's not the same old story anymore."

Suddenly, for example:

* The large but outgunned Muslim forces of the Bosnian government have, in effect, acquired a sophisticated, unstoppable air force (NATO) and a crack unit of heavy artillery (the U.N. Rapid Reaction Force).

* The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations are no longer the humiliated whipping boys of the bullying Bosnia Serbs. The roles are reversed.

* Russian protests on behalf of the Serbs don't seem to matter anymore on the diplomatic front.

But in rewriting the war's rule book virtually overnight, NATO's actions have also raised dozens of new questions. The biggest and most obvious ones are, why did this happen now, and what comes next?

The official answer to the first question is that the attacks were a response to Monday's Bosnian Serb mortar attack that killed 38 people in an open-air market in Sarajevo.

But equally, or more bloody attacks before -- such as the killing of 68 in the Sarajevo market in February 1994 and the killing of 21 by Bosnian Serb shelling of Tuzla in March -- have never drawn nearly such a response.

Neither has any of the shelling and sniping that has killed more than 10,000, mostly civilians, in Sarajevo during the past 3 1/2 years.

The real answer is more complicated. The most significant reason for the timing, analysts say, is that as of last weekend, when the last British troops left the Bosnian Serb-surrounded enclave of Gorazde, the United Nations no longer had any soldiers stationed in Bosnian Serb-held territory (except for a unit of Russian troops, generally considered sympathetic to the Serbian cause).

That means that, finally, the Bosnian Serbs would no longer be able to easily seize hundreds of U.N. troops as hostages to stop further airstrikes, as has happened in the past.

NATO warplanes have also been operating under a different, less timid command since the U.N. Rapid Reaction Force moved into Bosnia a few months ago.

Since then, the commander of U.N. forces has been able to deal directly with the NATO commander without non-military U.N. officials participating in the decision making.

The balance of the war has also shifted against the Bosnian Serbs lately, especially after separatist Serbs in neighboring Croatia were routed earlier this month by a Croatian offensive.

That brought on a split in Bosnian Serb leadership, with self-declared Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic struggling to oust military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic.

The result of all those factors, Mr. Petrie said, was that the three nations dictating NATO's Bosnia strategy -- the United States, France and Great Britain -- finally fortified their political will to act.

"In the past you always had one country saying, 'Let's go and zap them,' and the others would say, 'no, no.' " Mr. Petrie said. "So even when you had an airstrike, what you usually ended up with was a $10,000 missile fired by a $20 million plane to destroy a tank that was worth nothing."

As for what comes next, the first thing will likely be more air and artillery attacks. With most of the Bosnian Serb anti-aircraft defenses destroyed already, and with U.N. artillery near Sarajevo aggressively targeting any Bosnian Serb gun that dares to fire at them or into the city, further airstrikes will likely continue until most Bosnian Serb gun positions around the city are either silenced or moved out of range.

After that, the next move will mostly depend on the Bosnian Serbs. Under Dr. Karadzic's leadership, the Bosnian Serbs have tended to be defiant even when it wasn't in their own best interests.

His brand of Serbian nationalism is the sort that revels in glorious PTC lost causes -- all the way back to the Serbs' disastrous defeat 606 years ago by the Ottoman Turks on the plains of Kosovo.

But if the more pragmatic General Mladic were to oust Dr. Karadzic, Western officials believe he would see the military reality and quickly be ready to bargain. Then, the mostly-Muslim forces of the Bosnian government would become the volatile element in the mix.

Even if the Bosnian government forces don't take the offensive, they might lose their zest for negotiations if they believe they can eventually earn a better settlement on the battlefield. Such has always been the war's most nettlesome conundrum -- the side with the upper hand is always the most resistant to peace plans, and also the side best able to disrupt them.

Some other questions in the wake of the NATO attacks include:

Q. Have the attacks restored the credibility of the United Nations, NATO and the West?

A. If they'd occurred a year ago, or even three months ago, they might have. But that was before the fall of the Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa, which the United Nations and NATO took no action to defend after vows of protection. After more than four years of bloody fighting in the former Yugoslavia, perhaps any action appears too late.

The attacks also seem less noble now than they might have a month ago. That was before Croatia's four-day offensive drove separatist Serbs out of the country. The United Nations and NATO had little grounds for action there because Croatia was reclaiming land within its internationally-recognized borders. But there was also no response as the offensive drove more than 150,000 Croatian Serb civilians from their homes, shelling them as they fled.

Q: What about Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia? How will he react to this attack on his Serbian brethren in Bosnia?

A: Mr. Vasic, the Belgrade journalist, noted yesterday that Mr. Milosevic and his government had been notably slow in reacting at all to the attacks. The betting there was that he would take the same action as he did a few weeks ago when the Croatian Serbs appealed to him for help: He did nothing.

Mr. Vasic predicted the Serbian president will do nothing now beyond a few condemnations (if even that), particularly as long as Dr. Karadzic is still in power. Mr. Milosevic's greatest wish is to get the West to lift the economic embargo against his country, and he won't attain that by meddling on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs.

Q: So Mr. Milosevic is no longer a danger in Bosnia?

A: Not exactly. One thing that could upset this dangerous balance is Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. The only part of Croatia still held by the Serbs is a strip along Croatia's eastern border. That overlaps into what Mr. Milosevic believes is Serbia's sphere of influence, and he has stated bluntly he'll fight for it.

Nonetheless, Mr. Tudjman vowed last week that his armies will reclaim the land in the next few months. There have been troop buildups on both sides recently, and any attack would almost certainly draw Serbia's heavily-armed remnants of the Yugoslav army back into the fighting. If that happens, Mr. Milosevic might yet come to the aid of the Bosnian Serbs. And if he does, all bets are off for a rapid peace settlement in Bosnia.

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