The Folly of Giving Arms to Bosnia's Musims

September 16, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- The U.S. Congress appears intent on its foolhardy campaign to have the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims lifted. Well, so what? Illegal traffic in guns to the ex-Yugoslavian combatants amounted, according to Jane's Sentinel, to $1.5 to $2 billion between the fall of 1991 and the fall of 1993. But to open the arms gates would be enough to reinvigorate what has become a weary low-intensity conflict.

International arms embargoes are a relatively new tool. During the Cold War even events unrelated to the East-West conflict, such as coups in Liberia and Haiti or Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, failed to elicit an arms embargo. But since 1990 the U.N. Security council has imposed mandatory arms embargoes on six member states, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, Libya and Haiti, as well as one non-state group, the UNITA faction in Angola.

They appear to work, at least at the level of heavy weaponry. Embargoes may not stop the enormous traffic in AK-47s and portable bazookas, but they do limit tanks, heavy guns and aircraft.

The embargo weapon has done more to persuade Saddam Hussein to get rid of his chemical, biological and nuclear weapon establishments than Desert Storm was able to accomplish. This week the embargo persuaded UNITA to accept Security Council proposals on national reconciliation in Angola. And the embargo seems to have sobered the greatest present-day war criminal, Slobodan Milosevic. Surely his decision to seal his border with Serbian-controlled Bosnia is nothing less than an indirect suit for peace.

In Bosnia's case, the embargo weapon has served the Muslim cause reasonably well. It may have appeared to keep the Muslims at a military disadvantage, given that the Serbs inherited all the old heavy weaponry of the old Yugoslav armed forces, but in fact it has kept the battlefield on a tight rein.

The Serbs, embargo or no embargo, would always be able to match and surpass whatever the Muslims were able to field. It has been for the better that this inevitable superiority be achieved at a lower level of military sophistication. Easing the embargo on the Muslims would merely ratchet up the scale of fighting and the level of destruction without, in any significant way, altering the military balance -- or imbalance.

European and American diplomats may not have been able to end the Bosnian war, but they have managed for the most part to make the arms embargo on heavy weapons work in an even-handed way and to keep the economic embargo against Serbia reasonably tight. Avoiding the temptation to become more partisan on behalf of the beleaguered Muslims has earned them a basic respect from the combatants.

The overt partisanship of much Western reporting has played down such events as the Muslim agent-provocateur bombing of the market place in Sarajevo last year, or the Muslim leadership's decision, when Lord Carrington was the European Community's mediator, to refuse a deal on cantonization that was far better than the partition plan now agreed to.

Two and a half years of war and 100,000 bodies later, the conflict is now at a turning point. The Muslims are prepared to settle for only 49 percent of Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs are refusing 51 percent, but Mr. Milosevic is pushing them to agree. It seems only a matter of time before something gives on the Bosnian Serb side.

It would be the height of foolhardiness to tamper with the embargo that is shaping events favorably. Mr. Milosevic is taking a gamble with both his military and his civil support. If in the next couple of months the only clear result of his new tough line were to be the re-arming of the Bosnian Muslims, chances for peace would vanish.

The U.S. Congress, facing a self-imposed deadline of October 15, should think hard. Lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims may be the most counter-productive move America could make. It could end in snatching war out of the jaws of peace.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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