A SECOND costly, military setback for the Muslim-led Bosnian Army in three months has fueled doubts about the merit of the Clinton administration's plan to lift the arms embargo against Sarajevo.
United Nations military officers say that the defeat occurred Aug. 25 to 27 near Breza, about 15 miles north of Sarajevo, when Bosnian Serb forces staged an artillery-backed counterattack to regain territory the Bosnian Army had just captured in a major offensive.
The Bosnian Serbs took back their lost ground and advanced into territory the Bosnian Army had held prior to its offensive, UN officers say. They quote Bosnian Army officers as saying that their forces suffered hundreds of dead in the Bosnian Serb counterattack.
''The Muslims are in quite a bad way,'' says a UN officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It was the second major Bosnian Army offensive that has ended in a fiasco since June, when Bosnian Serb forces in a single day retook all of the territory lost to a more than week-long government drive in the northern Ozren region.
That operation had been personally commanded by the Bosnian Army chief of staff, Gen. Rasim Delic.
UN officers cite the Breza setback as the latest evidence that the Bosnian Army's lack of heavy weaponry is only one among a number of serious deficiencies that are unrelated to the UN weapons embargo.
These include: poor command and control by an undertrained officer corps, a lack of coordination between contingents, flawed tactics, unrealistic objectives, and little logistical support.
''We believe there is little prospect for any significant land gains by the BiH [Bosnian Army] in the future,'' says a British Army evaluation of the Bosnian military obtained by the Monitor.
The Clinton administration fails to understand that lifting the embargo ''is not something that will solve their [the Bosnian Army's] problems at a stroke,'' a UN officer says. ''Militarily, they are not ready for sophisticated weaponry.''
President Clinton says he will ask the UN Security Council to lift the arms embargo on Sarajevo unless Bosnian Serbs reconsider by Oct. 15 their rejection of the ''contact group's'' peace plan.
Administration officials have been trying to convince Russia, Britain, and France to drop their opposition to granting the Bosnian government an exemption from the embargo. But European diplomats said yesterday that Russia, France, and Britain are now putting heavy pressure on Washington to abandon its aim of lifting the embargo.
Russia, Britain, France, and the UN hierarchy say the multinational UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) will have to be withdrawn from Bosnia-Herzegovina if the embargo is lifted.
Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic on Wednesday reaffirmed his desire for an end to the embargo even though an UNPROFOR pullout would allow the Bosnian Serbs to overrun three eastern enclaves in which tens of thousands of Muslims are under UN protection.
''If we compare the positive and negative sides we would decide on getting weapons,'' Mr. Izetbegovic said.
Senior Bosnian officers insist their forces could turn the tide against the better-armed Bosnian Serbs if they could only obtain the weaponry and raw materials for their arms industries that have been denied by the embargo. ''We have succeeded where they [the Bosnian Serbs] don't have tanks. But as soon as they show up with a couple of tanks or artillery, we lose those positions,'' says Brig. Gen. Jovan Divjak.
General Divjak argues that the Bosnian Army has proved itself capable over the 29 months of fighting and that with the proper resources, could regain large swaths of the 70 percent of Bosnia conquered by the Bosnian Serbs.
''We know that the Serbs originally intended to conquer Bosnia in 26 days, and Sarajevo in eight days. Why couldn't they do it?'' he asks rhetorically.
UN officers and independent military analysts agree that the Bosnian Army, formed from a ragtag coalition of lightly armed police, former Yugoslav Army troops, and criminals, has made huge strides toward becoming an organized, professional force.
It has managed to obtain some arms supplies through breaches of the embargo. But it remains far weaker than that of the Bosnian Serbs, whose disadvantage in infantry is compensated by its massive numbers of Belgrade-supplied armored vehicles, cannons, and mortars.
Foreign military experts, however, argue that the Bosnian Army's acquisition of heavy weaponry will make little difference in the overall situation until it overcomes its other deficiencies.
''There can be no doubt that many of the individual BiH soldiers have the necessary aggression and determination to be utilized as effective infantrymen. What they lack are the command, control, and support [both combat and logistical] to allow their aggression to be channeled effectively,'' says the British Army assessment.