Apres Slobo, the Deluge

The real nightmare scenario began when the bombing started and chaos broke out across Kosovo. One way or another, it is likely that the West will be dragged in on the ground. As for Milosevic, his only goal is probably to remain in control of Serbia, even

Apres Slobo, the Deluge

The real nightmare scenario began when the bombing started and chaos broke out across Kosovo. One way or another, it is likely that the West will be dragged in on the ground. As for Milosevic, his only goal is probably to remain in control of Serbia, even

After almost nine months of repeated threats to bomb Serbia into accepting the Contact Group plan on Kosovo, NATO is now preparing to actually carry these threats out. As the final moments tick away, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic persists in his defiance -- still apparently unimpressed by NATO forces massing in Macedonia. Moreover, he is deploying more troops in the province, especially along the south-east border, and is cracking down on Albanian guerrilla bases in Drenica.

But while Milosevic braces, the question is: Is he anticipating his last stand and eventual fall, or he does he seriously believe that his ragtag army will deter, or even defeat, the armies of the West? Alternatively, how valid is the third scenario, that he actually needs a first wave of air-strikes as a political excuse to eventually give up territory in Kosovo, still regarded as sacred to most Serbs?

The key to these difficult questions will be found in what actually happens after the first Tomahawks hit the ground. For obvious reasons, NATO is not prepared to reveal its list of targets, but it can be presumed that the warning strikes would be limited to Serbian radar and anti-aircraft systems in Kosovo, minimising the risk of civilian deaths and avoiding targets in Serbia proper.

Two different Western sources in Belgrade said Wednesday that the strikes would be launched for three days to give Milosevic something to think about. Thereafter there could be more unspecified concessions to the Albanians. If he still remained defiant, more missiles would be launched, perhaps for weeks, until, according to the theory, he eventually agrees to the deal or is replaced by someone more sensitive to Western demands.

In the event, however, things are not likely to go that way at all.

Even though air defences and radar sites may be annihilated, Yugoslav ground troops will remain largely unaffected, and will still be capable of launching retaliatory acts against Albanian civilians. It is clear that, before they leave Kosovo forever, the Serbs will certainly slam the door shut hard on their way out. And if Serbian chains of command or communications are broken by the attack, this will only increase the risk of major atrocities will be carried out by renegade army units and self-styled local militias.

Nor is the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) likely to stay put and wait until Milosevic changes his mind and invites NATO ground troops in. They are also capable of launching their own ethnic cleansing campaigns, especially in rural areas, eliminating smaller Serbian enclaves and besieging the larger ones.

Most of these attacks by both sides would be uncoordinated and largely spontaneous. The West will be powerless to stop them until NATO is willing and able to move ground troops into Kosovo. Most likely, it will take weeks, maybe even months, before NATO restores some sense of order in the province.

This interim period could turn out to be bloodier than anything we have seen so far in Kosovo.

In Serbia proper, consequences are harder to predict. One likely outcome could be the meltdown of Milosevic’s regime, caused by massive desertion and infrastructural damage caused by the air strikes. Milosevic would probably be able to survive the attack physically, and even retain power in Belgrade and the surrounding area.

But the rest of the country would be exposed to troops retreating in disarray, looting and pillaging everything in their way. In that case, the situation would not remain stable for long. Soon, Serbia would be broken down to a series of regions ruled by local thugs with access to military hardware. What will follow will be a humanitarian crisis comparable to the chaotic situation in Albania after the demise of Sali Berisha.

In the days following the first strike, the West will therefore have to make some tough decisions. Probably the best course of action would be to deploy immediately with overwhelming force; not stopping until both Kosovo and the whole of Serbia is saturated with Western troops.

However, many Western leaders will find it hard to sell this idea at home. It involves considerable risk of casualties and evokes ugly memories of the disastrous Somali operation. Also military experts claim NATO simply doesn’t have the men available. Certainly the 10,000-odd NATO contingent in Macedonia is nothing like what would be necessary. Western governments say a minimum force of more than 100,000 ground troops would be needed.

The West is much more likely to follow the strikes with a period of hesitation, followed by a series of half-measures. This will make things even worse, and the costs and scale of the eventual Western intervention will only increase.

Although this may look like the worst case scenario, unfortunately it is much more likely to come to pass than the prediction that bombs will knock sense into Milosevic, or trigger a coup by Western-friendly elements within Serbia.

In fact it could be that Milosevic knows that he has just painted himself into a corner and now has no way out. It may be that he may prefer to see all Serbia break down into chaos rather than go down in history as the man who handed Kosovo, cradle of Serbia, to the enemy.

As long as he still gets to rule over what remains of the country, however small this part may be.

Dejan Anastasijevic is a journalist with Vreme in Belgrade.

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