Hesitant West: What Will Come of Hitting Serbs?

Western leaders met yesterday amid signs that no unified front exists on airstrikes

The use of airstrikes against the government in Belgrade to end the conflict in Kosovo would have a wide range of repercussions, some of which run counter to US goals in the Balkans.

Because of the intractable nature of the Kosovo conflict, as well as the unpredictability of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, there exists a strong possibility that bombing could further destabilize the region.

Such destabilization could lead the Yugoslav Army to turn on Mr. Milosevic, potentially fueling deep civil war. But in a least desirable outcome from the West's perspective, NATO action could galvanize Serb nationalism, analysts say, and give police free reign in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are calling for independence.

While Britain has hinted it could send ground troops to Kosovo, high-level US officials have said American soldiers will not be sent to Kosovo.

Airstrikes could also give Milosevic - widely viewed as the primary instigator in Kosovo - an opportunity to strengthen his hold on power. Already the opposition political parties and independent media in Belgrade are weak, but they could become completely muted if Milosevic calls a state of emergency.

With emergency powers, Milosevic could move to tighten his grip on Montenegro, the second republic of Yugoslavia. In the past year, the US has found an ally in new Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who seems willing to open up the republic's economy and promote democratic reform.

IN his decade of rule, Milosevic has thrived on ethnic conflict. He rose to power in 1989 partially by exploiting Kosovo, where local Serbs complained they were exploited under ethnic Albanian autonomy. Milosevic quickly took that autonomy away, styling himself as the defender of the Serbian people. The wave of nationalism first awakened in Kosovo would later lead to wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

"Milosevic's career began on the Field of Blackbirds," says a US diplomat, referring to the battlefield in Kosovo where the Serbs lost a monumental fight with the Turks and became subjected to 500 years of Ottoman rule.

"[Kosovo] is a more important issue to him than Bosnia."

Military action in Kosovo also could complicate relations with Russia, which to date has stood by Serbia, a fellow Slavic nation with a similar Orthodox religion.

Furthermore, airstrikes would continue to expand the role of NATO, which was first established to defend Western Europe from the spread of communism. It would almost certainly create a need for a peackeeping force like the one that stayed behind in Bosnia after the 1995 Dayton agreement ending that war. Some 32,000 NATO troops remain there today.

The difficulties of unleashing cruise missiles on a distant land where no Americans have been killed was evident this week. US diplomat Richard Holbrooke met with Milosevic at least three times, but had no significant progress to report to journalists.

"It seems to me it's the [most grim] situation we've faced in the Balkans to date," says a US diplomat familiar with the negotiations.

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