U.S., Allies Backtrack on Use of Force Against Serbs


Secretary of State Warren Christopher and four European counterparts meted out a diplomatic wrist slap Saturday to the Bosnian Serbs after the nationalist rebels had rejected a last-chance peace plan, killed a U.N. soldier, reimposed a blockade of Sarajevo and fired on aid flights.

The foreign ministers of the five-power Contact Group had billed their meeting here as a get-tough session aimed at punishing any Bosnian faction blocking the path to peace.

But differences among the mediating nations over how to deal with the latest spate of Serbian aggression compelled them to retreat to a symbolic tightening of leaky economic sanctions against the rebels’ backers in Belgrade, leaving the deadliest crisis in Europe in half a century to be dealt with another day.


The dramatic backtracking from threats to punish Serbian intransigence also risked diminishing the credibility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which had vowed to bomb Serbian gun emplacements, munitions factories and supply lines unless the rebels ceased attacks on U.N. troops and Bosnian civilians.

What emerged from the gathering of five of the most militarily powerful nations in the world was a collective recognition that they are unwilling to resort to armed force to persuade any Balkan belligerents to respect the principles and decisions of the community of nations.

“We’ve made a decision not to seek to impose a solution,” Christopher replied when asked if the great powers deemed themselves incapable of forcing an end to the bloodshed.

British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd emphatically insisted that the Contact Group, consisting of the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, is powerless to do more than exert economic pressure.

“There is this assumption that the international community or the Contact Group has the power to impose solutions. I don’t think the United States or anyone has that power,” Hurd said at a press conference after the ministerial meeting.

Earlier this month, Christopher and the European statesmen threatened a military response if the Serbs spurned their plan for a partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which they unveiled in the first week of July and cast as a take-it-or-leave-it formula for restoring peace to Bosnia.


The Muslim-led Bosnian government endorsed the proposal that would nominally retain an independent Bosnia while ceding half its territory to the control of Serbian separatists. The Serbs rejected the plan nearly two weeks ago and reiterated their opposition last week.

The rebels, led by nationalist warlord Radovan Karadzic, had been warned that they might face NATO air attacks if they rejected the plan. They were also warned of the possibility that the five nations might support lifting a U.N. arms embargo that has prevented the Sarajevo government from acquiring weapons to defend itself against the heavily armed Serbs.

But in the face of Russian reluctance to take action against the Serbs and concern among the French and British that their peacekeeping troops in Bosnia might be subjected to Serbian reprisals, the foreign ministers decided only to reaffirm their support for economic sanctions.

The diplomats did agree to propose a resolution to the U.N. Security Council, probably this week, aimed at closing a few loopholes in the existing sanctions, such as blocking financial remittances from offshore activities to the government of rump Yugoslavia.

The Serb-dominated Yugoslav regime has armed and supplied the Bosnian Serbs throughout their 27-month-old campaign to conquer territory for a Greater Serbia. Belgrade also backed Serbian separatists in Croatia who seized one-third of that country in a 1991 rebellion.

Despite more than two years of severe economic sanctions levied against his country, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has shown no sign of readiness to pinch off the supply lines to his proxy warriors in Bosnia and Croatia.


Christopher and the Europeans raised the prospect of future NATO air strikes to enforce weapons exclusion zones proclaimed around Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and the besieged Muslim enclave of Gorazde, both of which have been repeatedly violated over the past two months.

The Serbs’ history of violation with impunity appeared to make it unlikely they would take the latest vague threats any more seriously.

Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev made clear his country’s continued opposition to air strikes, warning that the Russian contingent of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Balkans would be withdrawn if NATO nations decided to bomb Serbian weapons that are violating the exclusion zones.

The ministers repeatedly sought to present their actions to tighten sanctions as firm resolve to bring the Serbian rebels into compliance. They portrayed their agreement on the symbolic measures as a great success, emphasizing the importance of unity among the five powers.

Even U.S. officials who had pressed for a forceful response to provocative Serbian actions of the past week executed a diplomatic backpedaling to renounce the use of force to pressure the rebels.

“The nature of this process is to get a ‘yes’ from the Serbs (on the partition formula) and to produce a negotiated settlement. It’s not punishment for punishment’s sake,” said one senior U.S. official, insisting the mediators must “keep the door open” for a Serbian change of heart.


Christopher said he was convinced by Kozyrev, who was en route to Belgrade after the Geneva meeting, that the Bosnian Serbs might eventually accept the peace plan.

As an inducement to the holdouts, the foreign ministers plan to couple their proposals for stricter economic sanctions against Serbia with assurances that the punitive measures will be suspended if the Bosnian Serbs comply with the peace plan.

Although the European ministers suggested the relief would be immediate, Christopher said it would be a “phased” lifting of sanctions.

U.S. officials fear that Karadzic’s followers might agree to the peace formula to get sanctions removed from their patrons in Belgrade and then refuse to abide by provisions requiring them to withdraw from areas they have cleared of Muslims and Croats.