Muslims Cheer Rescue Effort by ‘Air Jordan’

The Washington Post
February 24, 1993

SARAJEVO – For the past 10 months, Bosnia’s embattled Muslim-led government has tried in vain to persuade the world powers to stand up to Serb aggression in the republic and say simply, “enough is enough.”

Now, with the Clinton administration poised to parachute relief supplies into isolated Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia, officials here in the shell-shattered capital admit to a sense of weary elation that an important precedent has been established: Even though U.S. planes would be dropping food and medicine, not bombs, the Muslim leadership is convinced there can be no turning back.

“The Americans are in the game, and they can’t leave,” said Bosnian Vice President Zlatko Lagumdzija. “The star has walked onto the court and decided to play with the good guys. . . . Michael Jordan is in the game.”

Bosnian Serb politicians and militia commanders, outraged at the prospect of airdrops to their adversaries, have issued Saddam-style warnings of a mother of all battles in the Balkans, but diplomats here say that the last thing the Serbs want is a war with the United States. In recent months, they say, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has followed a predictable pattern when confronted with a threat of Western military intervention: At first, he warns that Bosnia will become another Vietnam; if that does not work, he does everything in his power to avoid a head-on confrontation.

But amid the high hopes of the Bosnian Muslims, the apocalyptic warnings of the Serbs and the quiet fears of U.N. aid officials here, it is clear that the rules of the game in Bosnia have changed: For the first time since Bosnia’s Serb-Croat-Muslim war broke out in April, a Western power has determined to do something over the objections of the Serbs and back up its actions with military might.

What will happen next is anybody’s guess.

Over the past few days, U.N. military officials here have voiced strenuous opposition to the American airdrop plan. In blunt comments to journalists, they emphasized the threat to U.S. planes from Serb groundfire; words like “very risky” and “extremely dangerous” have been used, and with justification.

But the main reason for their concern is not the welfare of American airmen; dozens of U.N. troops already have been killed or wounded in the Yugoslav conflict, so a few casualties among U.S. flight crews is not likely to come as a shock, they say.

What really concerns senior U.N. officers here is that the profound wish of Bosnia’s Muslim leadership could come true — that the United States will be taking the government side and, step by step, drag the 8,000 U.N. relief-support troops here along with it. The West European-led U.N. force has stuck firmly to a policy of neutrality, even though the Serbs — and their ultranationalist patrons in neighboring Serbia — have been condemned by the United Nations as brutal aggressors in the Bosnian conflict.

“We understand the frustrations of the world, but we are people on the ground who know the possible consequences,” said Barry Frewer, spokesman for the U.N. military mission here. “If planes are shot at, it could lead an escalation of hostilities {and} a strong possibility that the situation would change completely.”

The worry is that the Americans will do the one thing U.N. commanders have consistently shied away from doing — responding forcefully in the event of a Serb attack. This, they say, could work to deprive the British, French, Spanish and other U.N. troops here of their neutral status and force them to follow the American lead in a complex and perilous ground engagement.

This is particularly galling to the French, who are largely in control of U.N. forces here and are loath to be edged aside by Washington and told, in effect, that their policy is wrong or weak. The U.N. commanders for both Bosnia and Sarajevo are French, and both have lobbied strongly against U.S. airdrops.

It is largely for the sake of maintaining their diplomatic distance from Washington that neither France nor Britain will participate in the airdrops. Thus, they hope to perpetuate the neutrality of their troops on the ground and keep them out of harm’s way.

The Bosnian government strongly objects to this posture and hopes that U.S. airdrops will be the first step toward changing it. “Being neutral is to be objective and tell the truth, not just to stand between the two sides and treat them as equals,” said Vice President Lagumdzija.

But it is precisely because many Muslims here view full-scale Western military involvement as the salvation of their cause that another concern about airdrops has arisen among U.N. military officials. Muslim or Croat combatants, they say, could be tempted to shoot down U.S. supply planes and blame it on the Serbs, hoping thereby to provoke American outrage and win more support for their cause. U.N. officials say there is evidence that such provocative tactics have already been used, on a small scale, with mortar and artillery fire in Sarajevo.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.