NATO has turned up the heat on the principal aggressors of the Bosnian war by agreeing to prepare for airstrikes against Serb forces unless they lift their siege on Sarajevo. But the decision is nothing more than a threat and is far from implementation, according to NATO diplomats and security analysts.
The decision, announced Aug. 3 by NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner, is "fuzzy," says Col. Michael Dewar of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "We believe too much has been made of it too early," he asserts.
The United States called the emergency session, a marathon meeting starting Aug. 2 that lasted until the early morning hours of Aug. 3, to urge its Western allies to support airstrikes to protect the besieged capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The US proposal, which goes further than an earlier NATO plan to retaliate for attacks on UN peacekeepers, is intended to prevent the city's fall and ease the entry of humanitarian aid. Sources in Brussels say the NATO members are looking for a lifting of the Bosnian Serb siege over the next few days, not weeks or months.
"The alliance has now decided to make immediate preparations for undertaking, in the event that the strangulation of Sarajevo and other areas continues..., stronger measures including airstrikes against those responsible," Secretary-General Woerner said in his statement.
If NATO carries out the strikes, it will mark the first time the 44-year-old alliance has engaged in offensive military operations.
But because the decision was to prepare for strikes, rather than actually carry them out, the threat lacks teeth. "This really isn't a new position per se. There is a desire to look at the details, but we haven't reached the [decisionmaking] point yet," says a NATO diplomat from a country with troops on the ground in Bosnia.
Such countries, which include France, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain, have long held concerns about the ramifications of airstrikes.
At the NATO meeting, those countries reiterated concerns that airstrikes could cause retaliation against UN troops and endanger the Bosnian peace talks in Geneva. They were also worried that the UN troops in Bosnia, known as UNPROFOR, would be left out of the command loop should NATO take control of the strikes.
To address those concerns, the agreement requires NATO military officials to draw up operational guidelines for airstrikes "in close coordination with UNPROFOR," according to Woerner's statement. Any strikes would be "under the authority" of the UN Security Council, he said.
The military officials are to report back to NATO on this and other logistical matters at their next expected meeting Aug. 9.
Coordinating command responsibilities among the UN, NATO, and UNPROFOR is a mighty challenge. In the post-cold-war era of peacekeeping, interacting with several multinational organizations is a "trick" that NATO "has never had to do before," comments another alliance diplomat.
The agreement brings NATO a step closer to the assertive position of Washington. But by failing to actually vote yes on a strike - and by bringing up the question of coordinated command - Europe has shown once again that it still differs with the US on the question of military intervention in Bosnia.
"There is still a gap of understanding between the American stance and the European stance," Colonel Dewar says. Regarding NATO's decision, he adds, "it's a new threat, but I doubt there's the political will to back it up - unless the UN forces are in severe danger or Sarajevo is about to fall, and I don't think either of these things is about to happen."