The west finally accepted the necessity to bomb Yugoslavia on March 25, after their repeated attempts to help Milosevic to solve his Kosova problem were rebuffed. Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy on the Balkans, had left Belgrade on March 23 admitting that he had failed to persuade president Slobodan Milosevic to accept the Rambouillet peace agreement drafted earlier in the month, which the Kosovars had signed on March 18.
As Crescent went to press, the air-strikes were continuing. However, it was also clear that the Serbian operations against Muslim civilians in central Kosova were being intensified rather than ended. According to conservative estimates, over 60,000 Kosovar Muslims had been driven from their homes during the week prior to the strikes. Even as Holbrooke made his March 23 announcement, Serbian troops were searching houses in Kosovar capital Pristina, rounding up Kosovar men they claimed to suspect of separatist activities. It was the first time that the war had come so directly to the capital, which had previously been an island of relative calm where foreign observers could pretend that some sort of ceasefire was holding. The west has repeatedly said that the strikes were dependent on whether or not Milosevic bowed to western pressure and accepted the Rambouillet agreement. In fact, the dynamic is rather different. It is Milosevic who was threatening the west, not the other way around. Milosevic has no great objection to being bombed; it is the west which has long been desperate to avoid this step, not Milosevic.
This is amply clear from events since the Holbrooke-Milosevic deal in October. This deal, negotiated under the threat of NATO airstrikes, instituted a supposed cease-fire for the winter, in return for lifting the threat. The Serbs barely paid lip service to the ceasefire but suffered no comebacks until February, when their breaches - the Racak massacre in particular - became too serious for the west to keep ignoring. Meanwhile, thousands of Kosovars have been killed or made homeless over the last six months.
The tale of the Rambouillet talks reflect the same reality. Milosevic sent a light-weight team with the clear intention of playing for time. At the same time, under cover of the diplomacy he stepped up military operations in Kosova instead of suspending them. Again, given the excuse of diplomacy, the west ignored the Serbs atrocities; Kosovars kept dying.
The west then put together an autonomy deal which, far from offering the Kosovars self-determination, did not even restore them to the position they enjoyed before Milosevic unilaterally cancelled their autonomy within Serbia in 1989. Still the Serbs refused to co-operate; but the west’s pressure was primarily on the Kosovars, whom they blamed for the failure to reach a deal. It was the Kosovars’ intransigence, the west said, which prevented them from fulfilling their promise to bomb the Serbs.
Still, they said, provided the Kosovars sign up, the Serbs will have until the talks re-convened in Paris on March 15 to do likewise or face air strikes. The alternative offered to the Kosovars was that the west would totally withdraw from the conflict, leaving them to the Serbs’ not-very-tender mercies.
Faced with this ultimatum, and on the promise that Serbia would be bombed if it did not sign when the talks re-convened in Paris on March 15, the Kosovars agreed to sign at the talks. Still the Serbs refused to play ball, even to attend the talks.
After two days of further delay, as the west tried to persuade the Serbs to at least come to Paris, the Kosovars were persuaded to sign unilaterally. This prompted the the surreal scenes in Paris on March 18 at which Kosova president Ibrahim Rugova and KLA political leader Hashim Thaci signed a ‘peace deal’ while their opponents refused even to come to the table. It was described by one observer as having all the impact of clapping with one hand. Still NATO refused to carry out its threat to bomb Serbia, and still the Serbs stepped up their operations in Kosova, daring NATO to strike. The deadline was extended for a week, until March 23, and Richard Holbrooke, the west’s heaviest diplomatic gun - negotiator of the Dayton Accord which ended the Bosnian war and the man who persuaded Milosevic to sign a ceasefire in October last year - was sent into Belgrade to solve the problem. Meanwhile, the Serbs stepped up their murderous operations in Kosova with impunity. Twenty-four hours after Javier Solana finally authorised the air strikes, still the Kosovars wait.
The reality is that Milosevic does not mind being bombed. He depends on external enemies to secure internal support inside Serbia. What could better persuade his beleaguered - and grossly misinformed - people to support him than the fact of being under attack by the world’s sole superpower and its European allies?
Milosevic is also secure in the knowledge that the west is desperate to avoid causing any serious damage. Western missiles and aircraft killing brown Muslims in Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan are one thing; but public opinion will not tolerate the killing of white Christian Europeans for long. Already, within hours of the strikes beginning, concern in the west was more for possible Serbian casualties (and of course, NATO losses) than the continuing atrocities in Kosova.
What happens next is unclear. Having been desperate to avoid air strikes in the first place, the west after a few days of happily flexing their muscles and looking manly will need an excuse for stopping them. Milosevic knows that the west has stuck their neck out, and their greatest fear is that he will call their bluff. If Milosevic still refuses to sign the Rambouillet plan, the west’s choice will be between sending in ground troops, or giving him further concessions.
Kosovars can look forward to more of the same: Serbian aggression and western appeasement. The Kosovars have hardly featured in this analysis; that is not accidental. The fact is that, having signed their independence away on the ephimeral promise of western protection, they are no longer a major factor in the proceedings.
They now have little option but to accept whatever the west tells them. What the west will tell them is that they now have to make further concessions to secure peace in their country. When Milosevic decides to talk again, in response to the west’s increasingly desperate pleadings, he will have the whip-hand and the negotiating will start again, from the new status quo established by the Kosovars’ signing of the Rambouillet agreement.
Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1999