The bombing begins

Will NATO strikes push the Serbs to peace talks, or engulf the region in bloody chaos?

Published March 25, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

As NATO flung cruise missiles at targets from Belgrade in the north to blood-washed Kosovo in the south Wednesday night, the last flickering voices of reconciliation and peace in the faltering region were snuffed out.

Serbian authorities pulled the plug on Radio Station B92, one of the only independent editorial voices in Belgrade, and arrested its director, Veron Matic, only hours before a fleet of American B-52 heavy bombers lumbered down an English airfield en route to targets in what now must be called Erstwhile Yugoslavia. In Kosovo, the independent newspaper Kohe Detore was shuttered as Serbian forces slaughtered Albanian nationalists and panicked refugees streamed south toward the borders of Macedonia, whose fragile ethnic balance was already cracking, like Sarajevo before it, with the stress of Serbia's roughhouse brand of identity politics.

No one can confidently predict how, when or where the conflict will end. NATO's bombing objective is to "stop the killing and achieve a durable peace," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said, in a statement that made little sense. The Balkans region seemed to be compelled to repeat its dismal history, drawing in the outside world to a bloody round of politics at the barrel of a gun.

"I have not been this uneasy about any American military action since I left government," said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, no shrinking violet on the question of applying force in the service of a national objective. In Kosovo, he said, "There are no dividing lines, no definable outcome and a situation which, by our own definition of it, is bound to become more and more complicated and will bring us inevitably not only into a conflict with the Serbs, as we are already, but with the Albanians as it goes along."

Unlike in Iraq, the U.S.-led NATO forces will not likely flatten the enemy's ability to resist in 100 hours. The Serbian-run Yugoslav army is not a pushover. Its air defense system, bristling with modern ground-to-air missiles, mobile missiles and hundreds of Russian-made, shoulder-held "stingers," is capable of taking down NATO warplanes, despite the allies' heavy technological superiority. The Yugoslav army, trained and deployed to resist, if not repel, an overwhelming Soviet invasion, has spent decades building deep bunkers for its tanks and artillery throughout the country. It will not be easily rooted out.

Better to think of Kosovo as Somalia -- on steroids. Mogadishu street gangs made mincemeat of U.S. Army Rangers with little more than handguns. The Serbs have tanks, artillery and MiGs.

Milosevic has also massed an estimated 20,000 troops along Kosovo's border with Macedonia. Along the border with Albania, Serbs deployed an equally impressive force, the "largest ... since World War II,'' according to Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko.

Into this maelstrom NATO plans to send a "peace-keeping" force, theoretically after the bombing has permanently neutered the Serbs. Some 10,000 NATO troops were pre-deployed in Macedonia last month. Officially, the Western objective is to put Kosovo back together again, as an autonomous province, although the Kosovars, on whose behalf the United States is putatively acting, have all but declared they want complete independence.

In a packed auditorium at the National Press Club Tuesday night, the former Vietnam hawk Kissinger, once widely reviled as a "war criminal," drew applause from a well-heeled crowd when he announced his opposition to putting U.S. troops at risk on the ground in Kosovo.

"I think the goal we have now defined is not achievable," Kissinger said in his trademark guttural mumble. "I don't believe that we can achieve autonomy for a three-year period without our forces or the NATO forces being engaged in constant conflict with both the Serbs and the KLA."

Realistically, "autonomy" for the Albanians is a political anachronism, Kissinger added dolefully. The KLA wants a divorce from the Serbs, and if the U.S. kids itself about that, it risks being trapped in the middle. "If we put NATO forces in, we might just as well then bring about the independence of Kosovo," he said.

As always, there are the voices of people who have spent time in Kosovo trying to hammer together a nonviolent solution, wistful for what might have been. One is David Hartsough, executive director of the Peaceworkers organization, whom the Serbs expelled from Kosovo for preaching nonviolence to both sides last summer.

"Diplomatic efforts should have been under way more than a year ago, before the place exploded," Hartsough says. "At that time, the very significant and powerful nonviolent movement in Kosovo was calling for international intervention to try to stop the oppression bearing down on the Albanian people."

But their pleas were shrugged off in Washington, which was distracted, if not obsessed by, the Monica Lewinsky saga. Finally, in February, Clinton and other NATO leaders turned their attention to Kosovo, but ignored religious, women's and other nongovernmental leaders in the Balkans, calling together "only the top military and political leadership who had been pursuing the war," Hartsough said.

"So the mediators were repeating the same mistakes made at Dayton -- they brought together the architects of the war and tried to impose a peace solution from the outside," he said.

Critics seem resigned now to making the best out of a bad situation, hoping NATO can annihilate the Serbs' marauding "ethnic cleansing" units in Kosovo and pick up the pieces later.

"Once NATO puts the fire out -- hopefully -- we then have to deal with the long-term, underlying, combustible causes and conditions," says Dennis Sandole, professor of conflict resolution and international relations at George Mason University. But like Kissinger, Sandole says that "this is not something that NATO can do."

Many warn that "the fire in Kosovo could engulf the whole Balkans,'' as Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said Tuesday.

That may have already begun, as the flames of Kosovo licked at Macedonia and Albania. Back in war-weary Bosnia, two hand grenades exploded early Tuesday outside the Banja Luka office of the international body overseeing Bosnia's fragile peace process. At Radio B92, Serbian officials led 10 policemen into the station and demanded workers "instantly to stop working on computers, switch off and put away their mobile phones and refrain from answering the [regular] phones," according to a late night e-mail from the station received by Don North, an independent TV journalist in Fairfax, Va., who visited Kosovo last summer. "Giving no justification, the policemen took the station's editor-in-chief Veran Matic along with them as soon as he entered the studios," the staff reported.

Serbian authorities, meanwhile, pumped nationalistic propaganda into government-controlled newspapers and radio stations and threw a cloak of censorship over the Western media. Western reporters were jostled on the streets and some were arrested, according to some reports.

It may be only the beginning. But it may signal the beginning of the end, too. It took NATO bombing of Serbian forces to bring them to the peace table in Dayton. Maybe it will work this time in Kosovo as well, but even the most optimistic observers doubt it. Looking back a year from now, they say, Sarajevo will look like a cakewalk.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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