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NATO Airstrikes on Serbs Rally Fragmented Alliance

By Tyler Marshall
Los Angeles Times
BRUSSELS, Belgium

Whatever success the first Western military air and artillery attacks in Bosnia-Herzegovina may have in moving the stubborn war there toward the negotiating table, they had an immediate political impact in Europe, restoring the unity and credibility of the Atlantic Alliance after months of serious internal strains over the Balkans crisis.

Among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 16 member nations, backing for the attacks was strong, especially among key countries that have differed openly and sometimes sharply over tactics.

"A proper step," British Prime Minister John Major declared, echoing similar comments from other European capitals and from President Clinton.

Tensions within NATO have been driven largely by U.S. frustration over the inability of its European allies to resolve the first major post-Cold War conflict in their own back yard. Europeans have been equally dismayed by what they see as the Clinton administration's lack of leadership and its dizzying policy zig-zags.

Congressional calls for a unilateral U.S. lifting of the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations against Bosnia - a move Europeans believe would dramatically diminish chances for peace - added to trans-Atlantic differences over the Balkans.

The large-scale, sustained air strikes also will help restore NATO's rather tarnished image as a potent military force.

"Morale is very, very high," an alliance official said during an interview at NATO headquarters. "The feeling is that we were asked to do something in Bosnia a year and a half ago and we're finally starting to do it."

In February 1994, after 68 people died in an artillery attack on a Sarajevo marketplace, NATO first agreed to help protect and enforce a 12-mile zone around the city in which heavy weapons, such as artillery, would be banned. But for months the United Nations refused to permit the use of NATO's military might to enforce the zone.

On a purely political level, the action Wednesday appeared certain to lift the morale and confidence of Western leaders and their electorates, whose feelings of humiliation and impotence in the face of Bosnia's agony had grown even greater as they watched television reports of the mortar attack that killed 37 people in Sarajevo Monday.

To Europeans, NATO's action provided a catharsis in reasserting Europe's authority and power and demonstrating its willingness to exercise them.

For many, the attack also contained an unspoken message of hope: maybe, just maybe, this use of force might bring the war closer to resolution.

The attacks showed that NATO and the United Nations despite months of frustration, even tension between them, over their differing approaches to the Bosnian problem could work effectively together.

NATO's initial air sorties against Bosnian Serb targets around Sarajevo early Wednesday were immediately followed by artillery and mortar barrages from French and British troops under U.N. command. Whether meant as a political signal or not, there was a firm and direct message for the Bosnian Serbs: the international community was united and reacting with force.

NATO officials see the attacks as a direct result from the agreement less than three weeks ago to establish a new joint command. That structure skirts civilian involvement, removing U.N. special envoy Yasushi Akashi from the loop and placing the decisions for military action in the hands of the U.N.'s senior commander in the former-Yugoslavia, French Gen. Bernard Janvier, and the chief of NATO's Southern Command, U.S. Admiral Leighton Smith.

"I intend to continue close cooperation with Janvier," Smith told the Cable News Network after the fourth wave of strikes.

Other developments weakened the U.N. resistance to using force. The U.N. peacekeeping missions in Croatia and in the declared "safe areas" of Bosnia had collapsed. The United Nations also had gradually withdrawn peacekeepers from areas where they could be taken hostage by Bosnian Serbs in reprisal for NATO attacks.