They have a vaunted air-defense system that is mobile, sophisticated, and easily hidden in the tree-covered hills of Kosovo. They have a tradition of fighting wars, and a culture that embraces soldiers.
But it is the Yugoslav Army's (JNA) recently tightened chain of command, which seems willing to follow President Slobodan Milosevic into a war against the world, that has Western officials most worried as they inch closer to launching airstrikes against Serbia.
With the Serbs refusing to sign a US-sponsored peace plan on Kosovo, and with the JNA broadening an offensive against the Kosovar Albanians over the weekend, it has become more and more likely that NATO will take military action against Mr. Milosevic. Western ambassadors met yesterday in Brussels to determine a course of action.
"The JNA is better now than it was in October," says a high-level Western official, making reference to the last time NATO threatened to bomb the Serbs. "Everyone from Milosevic to the guy in the foxhole is in line. There are no problems with their chain of command. They have no doubt."
In signs that airstrikes may come, more than 1,000 international cease-fire monitors left Kosovo this weekend for fear of becoming human shields, and Western embassies removed nonessential staff from Belgrade.
"Make no mistake, if we and our allies do not have the will to act, there will be more massacres," President Clinton said Friday. "In dealing with aggressors in the Balkans, hesitation is a license to kill. But action and resolve can stop armies and save lives."
While the Clinton administration has been expected to lead a push to unite its allies behind military action, officials have been careful not to underestimate the JNA. Though small and poor, the JNA may prove to be a more formidable opponent than the Iraqis, whom the US bombed in December.
Western officials have in the past six months intensified their evaluations of the JNA's defense capabilities, and in the process have raised their level of expectations.
The Yugoslavs have an "integrated" air-defense system, in which command centers, three levels of radar, and surface-to-air missile launchers are tightly linked together. They have an abundance of air-defense artillery, the same eye-guided guns that have been used to pound villages in Kosovo. Their small Air Force has as many as eight operational MIG-29 fighter planes, which can be hidden in advanced underground bunkers.
"The more you learn about their integrated defense system, the more you realize you don't know about it," says the Western official. "[US planes] will get shot down, and people will die."
But perhaps most important, Milosevic has in the past six months shored up dissension within the JNA by firing the moderate commander Momcilo Perisic and replacing him with Dragoljub Ojdanic, a loyal Milosevic supporter.
In a dramatic show of defiance that could strengthen international resolve to launch airstrikes, Milosevic has some 40,000 troops and police in and around Kosovo, and may be preparing for a final push to wipe out the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Or he may be preparing to defend against NATO.
"We have to settle our account with [the ethnic Albanians] and with the internal traitors who say we cannot fight the world," Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, the commander of the JNA's Kosovo forces, reportedly said over the weekend. "There is big unity among our people, and the Westerners should know that."
More than 2,000 people have died in a year of war, and as many as 400,000 have been driven from their homes. Heavy fighting continued yesterday.
United States officials have said there is no timetable or deadline on airstrikes and a last-minute deal is still possible. Diplomats have said the Serbs have at least until Wednesday to reconsider signing a peace plan, but given the recent aggression in Kosovo, NATO has threatened to act sooner.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced yesterday that US special envoy Richard Holbrooke is being sent to Yugoslavia to deliver a final warning to Milosevic.
Included in the NATO forces are about 200 US warplanes in northern Italy, ready to attack if ordered. The US Navy also has ships and submarines in the Adriatic Sea that are capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at Serbia. NATO has said they would use ground troops only if Milosevic capitulates and agrees to a peace plan.
Some observers raise doubts that airstrikes would lead Milosevic to cave in. "If airstrikes are designed to get Milosevic to sign [the peace] agreement, it won't work," says Gary Dempsey, a foreign-policy analyst for the Washington-based Cato Institute. "If we go in with airstrikes, we will harden the position of the Serbs."
"[The Yugoslavs] have always fought to the last man," says the Western official. "They're proud people who have been beaten up a lot, so it will take a lot to make them give up."