UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — THE stakes in the tragic war over Bosnia-Herzegovina keep rising.
The West racheted up the pressure on the Bosnian Serbs once again with a new and broader threat of NATO airstrikes, and once again put that threat on hold (as of this writing) despite Serb resistance.
The question now, beyond how strong a military blow NATO can deliver, is whether NATO's new policy will at last convince the Bosnian Serbs that Western determination to protect the six UN-declared Muslim ``safe areas'' equals or exceeds their own will to take more land and consolidate their territorial gains.
The first test centers on the besieged city of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia, where more than 700 people have been killed in a three-week-long Serb offensive.
Under its new policy adopted on April 22, NATO warned Bosnian Serbs that any further shelling of Gorazde could trigger immediate airstrikes and demanded that Bosnian Serb troops withdraw at least 1.9 miles from the city by early morning local time yesterday.
Racing against those deadlines, Yasushi Akashi, the United Nations special envoy in former Yugoslavia, brokered an agreement with Bosnian Serb officials in Belgrade April 23 for both the cease-fire yesterday and Serb rollback by the NATO deadline.
Mr. Akashi, after talks with UN military commanders, vetoed a NATO request mid-day Saturday for authorization to bomb Serb targets. Both the UN and NATO must approve the first strike. The UN decision infuriated officials of Bosnia's Muslim-led government.
Mortar and sniper fire continued in the town yesterday. The UN reported that Bosnian Serb forces had begun to withdraw, but that at least some Serb forces still had not pulled back from the city several hours after deadline.
The new UN accord and the deployment of some 500 UN peacekeepers in Gorazde, however, diminished the likelihood of retaliatory airstrikes.
Beyond the current problem, another deadline awaits. By midnight Wednesday local time, all Serb heavy weapons must be pulled back at least 12.4 miles from the city.
The threat of NATO airstrikes also extends to Bosnian Serb targets in and around the other Muslim ``safe areas'' if these are attacked or if Serbs amass heavy weapons there in a threatening way.
The tougher NATO policy calls for the protection of civilians as well as UN troops in the enclaves and allows for a broader range of military and logistical targets than in the past. The policy is the culmination of a frenzied week-long scramble involving UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who first proposed on April 18 a general broadening of the NATO airstrike threat and a streamlined procedure for the approvals required, and Western leaders such as US President Clinton, who submitted his plan for a stronger NATO stance mid week.
Russia, which has strong ties to the Serbs, has been reluctant to endorse airstrikes and says too often Muslim provocations are ignored. Yet Bosnian Serbs broke cease-fire pledges made to Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin last week, and Russia received fresh assurances at its requested emergency session of the Security Council April 23 that the scope of strikes would be limited. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev now calls the NATO strike threats an ``appropriate'' response as long as the UN remains closely involved.
Yet the bolder NATO position carries new risks.
The new strategy is likely either to fail or to require ground troops to succeed, says Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy, the quarterly journal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The policy is not a ``serious'' one, he says, and mistakenly involves the US in a civil war rooted in ``deep historical and religious hatreds'' and assumes that the West is dealing with a ``rational actor'' on the Bosnian Serb side who is in control of his troops. ``These people [the Bosnian Serbs] are crazed in a way, and the bombing is just not going to stop the fighting - I think it's going to make them more determined.''
But Janusz Bugajski, an Eastern Europe expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says inaction and minimal action are also risky. Western inaction has encouraged Bosnian Serbs to enlarge and solidify their holdings, he says, and the limited NATO bombing sorties on Serb positions in Gorazde two weeks ago had no discernible impact. The last remaining option, he says, is ``some kind of credible military threat.''
Support is growing in some circles, though still primarily among Muslim nations and in the US, for exempting Bosnia's Muslim-led government from the region's UN arms embargo. But the UN Security Council still is unlikely to sanction such a move, and US officials do not want to tempt UN member nations to defy other UN sanctions by acting unilaterally.
Mr. Bugajski, who has long favored greater access to arms for Bosnian Muslims, says many countries would like to supply weapons to the Bosnian government. In his view, the best means without signaling the Serbs, who might then take aggressive action in advance, is to arrange for Bosnian arms imports in a quiet way. ``The thing to do is simply wink and nod and allow the stuff to come through without formally lifting the embargo,'' he says.
The Clinton administration, which also favors tightening economic sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro, hopes the new NATO policy will keep the war from spreading and make Serbs realize they must pay a high price for continued aggression.
But some diplomats and analysts are skeptical that the policy will encourage all three sides to get back to the negotiating table anytime soon. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, for instance, has said airstrikes make sense only if they are part of a political plan. ``We must pursue the diplomatic route and escalate it,'' he says.
Both Russia and France have called for a high-level conference to focus on Bosnia's problems. Mr. Boutros-Ghali has relayed the request to the Security Council. President Clinton termed the proposal ``premature'' but says he is willing to consider it.