West Backed Into Bosnia's Corner

Serbs, with 370 hostages, unlikely to be intimidated by the West's military buildup

WITH the help of a few thousand US troops, a meaner, more effective peacekeeping force can emerge in Bosnia, UN officials say.

When Serbs shell UN-guarded Sarajevo, newly deployed British artillery units could shell them back. When United Nations peacekeepers are taken hostage or a UN observation post seized, an elite French-led rapid reaction battalion could rescue them.

And when Serbs block humanitarian aid convoys or seize heavy weapons from UN storage sites, attack helicopters could quickly target crucial Serb artillery and tanks that have allowed them to dominate Bosnia's lopsided war.

But analysts warn that UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros- Ghali's proposal on Wednesday for a new beefed-up multinational force or a scaled-down UN peacekeeping force -- which President Clinton says US troops may now help establish -- will only lead to further UN humiliation or an all-out war with the Bosnian Serbs.

Even if UN troops are bolstered now, analysts say, the Serbs still will continue to have the upper hand with the 370 UN peacekeepers they now hold captive. The arrival of more Western troops may simply make the hostages even more valuable ''human shields'' against Western ground and air attacks.

The Serbs are also unlikely to be intimidated by the West's sudden new resolve after experiencing years of UN Security Council resolutions rarely being enforced in Bosnia. The bottom line in the conflict, that the West is not willing to take significant casualties, has not changed.

''This is not fundamentally altering the tactical situation on the ground. If the Serbs decide they want to take [the new force] on, they can make it lose, and the Croats and Muslims can do the same thing,'' warns a former United States military official who was stationed in the former Yugoslavia. ''This is literally rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.''

But UN officials on the ground in the former Yugoslavia and Paul Beaver, Balkans editor at the London-based Jane's Defense Weekly, say a redeployment would risk a limited number of US lives and that a new, more heavily armed European-led force can work.

''I'm optimistic about it. Having heavy weapons would make a substantial difference,'' Mr. Beaver says. ''It would effectively become a NATO operation without the Americans.''

UN officials point to an unprecedented offensive operation by peacekeepers last Saturday as the kind of ''robust'' response to Serb aggression they'd like to mount more often.

Hours after Serb troops dressed in stolen UN uniforms seized a UN observation post in Sarajevo, 40 French troops backed by armored personnel carriers took it back. One French soldier was killed, but four Serb soldiers were captured in the operation.

What the peacekeepers need, UN political and military officials on the ground say, is a redeployed force with an ability to hit back with something heavier than the current forces' machine guns, but less politically explosive than a NATO airstrike. France has proposed a heavily armed, mobile battalion to strike back at the Serbs and is hosting a meeting of NATO defense ministers tomorrow to discuss its formation.

UN officials, struggling to patch together an effective policy as their largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation disintegrates, say they are not sure how such a new force would work, but they have no choice.

''It's robust or bust,'' says one UN official. ''The mood among the British and the French -- particularly the French -- is we either have new rules of engagement or we get out.''

Analysts warn that a dangerous UN redeployment, in which 2,000 US Marines on a US carrier in the Adriatic could participate, must occur before any new peacekeeping force can be formed in Bosnia. Casualties, they say, could be high.

Serb forces could decide to prevent a UN withdrawal from isolated observation posts where peacekeepers have become ready-made hostages. Americans, whom Serbs generally view as siding with Bosnia's Muslim-led government, could be targeted as they ferry peacekeepers out by helicopters or escort them out via narrow, winding mountain roads.

Muslim civilians and troops could also resist a US-assisted redeployment. UN officials are considering reducing the UN presence in six Muslim ''safe areas'' and no longer using force to defend them.

Analysts say Mr. Clinton's offer of US troops on Wednesday came after the administration essentially backed itself into a corner. NATO airstrikes, which the administration lobbied heavily for, backfired last week and resulted in over 370 mostly European peacekeepers being taken hostage by the Serbs.

With no progress in negotiating the hostages' release and the Clinton administration having no further proposals on how to rein in the Serbs, the Europeans are putting intense pressure on the administration to now support their policy in Bosnia.

''The Europeans have done a good job humiliating Clinton with the [failed] airstrikes,'' says the former US military official. ''They've really hung them around his neck.''

Patrick Glynn, an analyst at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, says Clinton can still retract his troop offer, but he risks severely straining US-European ties. At home, where little public support for supporting US troops in Bosnia exists, Clinton is taking an enormous political risk.

''This has to be presented very carefully. If he can keep the US involvement very limited and couch it in the fact that we are helping our British and French allies he may be all right,'' Mr. Glynn says. ''If things are managed the way they were in Somalia, he is going to be in big trouble.''

Glynn says a redeployment of peacekeepers may be simply putting off the inevitable -- a messy, casualty-ridden full UN withdrawal from Bosnia that could involve 25,000 US troops.

''I don't see a reconfigured UN force as sustainable,'' Glynn says. ''It's all lose-lose as far as I can see.''

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