Attack seen as success

March 01, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- NATO's first offensive military action in its 44-year history was an open-and-shut success.

If alliance commanders were looking for an easy way to show Western resolve in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serbs handed it to them on a platter as six Bosnian Serb-owned, antiquated Galeb jets misbehaved in the sights of two U.S. F-16s. Four of the Serb craft were shot down.

But the precedent-shattering attack also marked a sea change in political attitudes, here and in Europe, that makes further use of allied force more likely.

In flagrant defiance of the United Nations-declared no-fly zone, Bosnian Serb fixed-wing aircraft were seen either trying to bomb or actually bombing a Bosnian Muslim target, according to U.S. Adm. Jeremy Boorda.

This was the first clear aggressive action by Bosnian Serb aircraft since the zone was created last year.

As British Prime Minister John Major put it here yesterday: "There was no reason for those planes to be there. They were there with hostile intent. They were given a warning. They declined to accept that warning. They were shot down. Frankly, they could expect nothing else."

Also, yesterday's action didn't require the advance authorization from U.N. commanders on the ground that would be needed to enforce NATO's order that Bosnian Serbs withdraw heavy weaponry from Sarajevo.

"This was one standing option that we had that didn't [require] any more approval," said a State Department official who closely follows the Bosnian war.

It also had clear authority from the U.N. Security Council in the form of a resolution supported by Russia.

Moscow, which has long-standing ties to the Serbs, has objected noisily to the prospect of air strikes against Serb targets near Sarajevo, saying these would escalate the war.

But its only objection to enforcing the no-fly zone, when the Security Council debated it, was a fear that NATO would retaliate against targets on the ground. Russia abandoned its objection when Western allies promised that interdiction would occur only in the air.

Even though the United States appears to have waited until yesterday's action was over before notifying Russia, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev found no reason to protest.

"If the Serbs did this, I see no justification," he said, adding that he did not think the incident would escalate the conflict, the Reuter news agency reported.

Officials denied that the alliance had been looking for a chance to flex its muscle after the latest cease-fire in Sarajevo. But officials here did say that NATO commanders had become more confident that they could retaliate without being second-guessed.

The reasons: Western governments have become more committed to using force in Bosnia following the shelling of a Sarajevo market Feb. 5, which showed allied leaders that the conflict wasn't ending and that they might well be held responsible for the continued carnage.

Because of the successful ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs on withdrawing heavy weaponry from around Sarajevo, the United States and the United Nations have regained some credibility in Bosnia that neither wants to lose. The Clinton administration also has a deeper commitment to seeking a negotiated end to the war, having finally taken the lead in the peace process.

"We're on the hook on this one," the State Department official said.

Europeans, whose credibility had also been seriously eroded, have accepted the use of air power in the war and realize they need Washington's continued involvement, since their own efforts have failed.

U.N. peacekeepers, as well, have lost their aversion to using force. The commander in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, said Sunday that he would move relief convoys through the country without seeking permission from the warring Serbs, Croats or Muslims.

In addition to being the first offensive operation in NATO's history, yesterday's air attack was the first time NATO had acted militarily in Bosnia, which is outside the area it has traditionally defended.

U.S. officials were congratulating themselves on having passed with flying colors. But next week will pose a much harder test.

The United Nations has set March 7 as the target date for reopening the airport at Tuzla, an operation considered essential to getting relief supplies to Muslim areas.

With the airport area under repeated Bosnian Serb shelling, U.N. commanders, working with NATO, may soon face the decision to call in close air support by allied planes, to try to take out Bosnian Serb artillery.

In a sign of that coming struggle, Tuzla was bombarded by Bosnian Serb shells yesterday after the aircraft were shot down, in what some analysts viewed as retaliation.

This, in turn, raises the possibility that those who all along opposed military intervention were right in saying it would lead to a quagmire.

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