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The Extra-legal Intervention

Unlike the strikes in Bosnia in 1995, NATO does not have UN authorisation to proceed with the bombing of Serbia and Montenegro. It is also unlikely to be able to avoid the use of ground troops. Whatever the events, NATO is in the Balkans to stay.
By Christopher Bennett

Having threatened air strikes against Serbia since last summer, NATO now appears obliged to see them through. Yet the legal grounds on which the alliance intends to intervene and the precise nature, in particular the limits, of that intervention remain unclear.


If, on the eve of its 50th anniversary, NATO does decide to bomb Serbia from the air, it will be the alliance’s second major military offensive, following air strikes against Bosnian Serbs in August and September 1995. On this occasion, however, NATO will be acting unilaterally without the support of the United Nations Security Council. Unless Serbia capitulates immediately, the alliance may also face retaliation; take casualties; and is likely eventually to have to deploy ground troops in Kosovo to halt the Serbian offensive which is currently under way there.


The legal obstacle to intervention has essentially been ignored by NATO strategists seeking to force Serbian compliance with the internationally designed plan for Kosovo. The accord, which envisages substantial autonomy for Kosovo within Yugoslavia with a NATO-led force to oversee implementation, was signed by ethnic Albanian leaders in Paris last week but rejected by their Serbian counterparts.


Unlike in Bosnia in 1995, the United Nations Security Council will not support NATO air strikes because of the opposition of two permanent members, China and Russia. Moreover, it is clear that NATO intervention will not be in response to any threat by Serbia against a member state, but as a result of the on-going conflict within the country. Many analysts fear this could prove a dangerous precedent.


The Western states argue that there is in fact a legal basis for the intervention, in order to prevent what they see as a major impeding humanitarian disaster. Despite the actions of Serbian forces within Kosovo, international law is thus on Yugoslavia’s side. This fact has not been lost on Belgrade which has accordingly appealed to the United Nations Security Council for protection from NATO.


Furthermore, the current intervention is likely to involve greater risks than the 1995 bombing, when NATO lost planes but took no casualties, because Yugoslavia is a more powerful adversary than the Bosnian Serbs. Yugoslavia possesses substantial air defences, including Soviet-built mobile SA6s; controls its territory; and even has some offensive capacity. The Bosnian Serbs, by contrast, had a fraction of the military hardware, were already losing on the battlefield, and faced a NATO rapid reaction force which had already been deployed on the ground.


Activation orders authorising NATO air strikes against Serbia were passed in October last year. They remained in place but were not implemented at the time because US special envoy Richard Holbrooke persuaded Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to halt the Serbian offensive, reduce the Serbian police presence in Kosovo and allow in international monitors to observe police withdrawal.


Since the break-up of peace talks in Paris last Friday, foreigners stationed in Yugoslavia have been leaving the country; all 1,500 international observers in Kosovo have withdrawn to neighbouring Macedonia; and the North Atlantic Council has been meeting on a daily basis to prepare intervention. The trigger for NATO to authorise strikes was the failure of the last-ditch attempt by Holbrooke to persuade Milosevic to back down and sign on to the peace plan.


NATO planners hope that intervention can be limited to air strikes and, because of the obvious risks, will not require deployment of ground troops into a hostile environment.


Bombing could last up to three weeks and is expected to begin with cruise missile attacks launched from six US ships, two US submarines and one British submarine in the Adriatic and US B52s coming from the UK. The first wave of bombing will aim to take out Yugoslavia’s air defences and will be followed by further waves involving manned flights. More than 200 aircraft, including B2 stealth bombers and F 1-17 stealth fighters, from 13 NATO member states are on standby in the region.


Some 28,000 troops have been earmarked for KFOR, or Kosovo Force, the NATO-led peace-keeping force to oversee implementation of the peace plan, but not to intervene militarily against the Yugoslav army. At present, some 2,400 soldiers, who formed an extraction force to assist the withdrawal of the Kosovo’s international observers, are deployed in neighbouring Macedonia under NATO command. A further 10,000 troops are there under their respective national commands.


The key unknown for NATO is Serbian resolve. If bombing fails to persuade Milosevic to accept the internationally designed plan for Kosovo and NATO deployment in the province, NATO will have to consider sending in ground troops.


Whether or not air strikes cause Serbia to relent, NATO will already have crossed the Rubicon. Having identified Milosevic as the obstacle to peace and then, in defiance of international law, bombed Yugoslavia, NATO will have made clear that it is in the Balkans to stay. Whereas earlier peace agreements have all looked to Milosevic as a key guarantor, the final Kosovo settlement is likely to be very different.


Chris Bennett is author of Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse (Chris Hurst, 1995) and former director of the International Crisis Group in the Balkans.


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