Glorious Defeat, Noble Retreat

It is not impossible that NATO’s high risk offensive will work, though it may not work in the way NATO seems to expect.

Glorious Defeat, Noble Retreat

It is not impossible that NATO’s high risk offensive will work, though it may not work in the way NATO seems to expect.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Fears that NATO’s air offensive will actually worsen the humanitarian catastrophe it is ostensibly designed to prevent are firming up. NATO claims that the Serbian government has released criminals into paramilitary groups operating in Kosovo. In Belgrade, what is left of the independent press reports that the para-military commander Zeljko Razmatovic has called for volunteers for a new force to fight in Kosovo.

Yet it is not impossible that NATO’s high risk offensive will work, though it may not work in the way NATO seems to expect.

The nightmare scenario contains two wars. In one, NATO gets command of the air. Strike aircraft hammer Serbian police and Yugoslav army bases, communications systems and government infrastructure. The A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft with their armour-piercing incendiary cannon shells hunts down and destroys armoured vehicles and artillery operating in Kosovo. But, in this scenario, Serbia does not surrender.

Instead, in the other war, enraged Serb police and Yugoslav soldiers strike back against the only target to hand, supported by the wild men of the paramilitaries, among them "Arkan" Razmatovic’s specialists in terror and ethnic cleansing. But because of the war from the air, they cannot use armoured vehicles and artillery. So the Kosovo Liberation Army is on even terms, perhaps a little less well trained, but equipped as well if not better, highly motivated and equally angry.

It can be assumed that if this war of the irregulars breaks out, anyone with an average level of human decency and an average amount of courage will try to get out. The battle will be fought for control of a wasteland.

It is the nightmare scenario, and there are four alternatives to it. The first is that NATO commits ground forces to prevent it from happening, which has thus far been ruled out by the alliance’s political leaders. The second alternative is that, before the full horror is unleashed, NATO recognises it has under-estimated President Slobodan Milosevic’s capacity to allow Serbia’s citizens to suffer, stops the air offensive and tries to get back into negotiating mode. Having faced the alliance down, Milosevic can be expected to scorn negotiations and, moreover, to punish the Kosovo Albanians further.

The third alternative is the one NATO claims to be counting on: Milosevic picks up the phone to announce that he will accept the Rambouillet agreement and stand down his forces immediately. At that point the world will find out whether the Rambouillet agreement is still on the table, or whether the air offensive has increased the stakes and made it impossible for Kosovo to remain in Yugoslavia. Either way, unless the Contact group sweetens the pill with, for example, economic reconstruction, this alternative means total defeat for Milosevic.

So even at the limit, Milosevic can be relied on to manoeuvre, to pull any consolation prizes he can from the jaws of defeat. The fourth alternative, then, is that Milosevic recognises that, of course, he cannot defeat NATO, nor even resist if the alliance retains the will and unity to pound his forces for days and weeks. And recognising that, he may embrace defeat and turn it into, if not victory, at least survival.

One of Serbia’s central historical myths is the glorious defeat in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo Fields, which ended the medieval Serb empire and establish Ottoman domination in the Balkans. As far as the facts are available, they offer a very different picture. The army that fought the Ottomans was not Serbian alone; the non-Ottoman side did not lose the battle; and even if it had, the result would not have destroyed the Serb empire since that crumbled in 1355, a generation earlier. But for the myth-makers for almost four centuries, Kosovo Fields has been a glorious defeat.

More factually based, but with a similar capacity to mobilise intense national feelings, is the story of the exodus from Kosovo in 1690. Fearing Ottoman reprisals after the defeat of a Serb uprising and an Austrian offensive, the Serb Orthodox Patriarch Arsenije led more than 30,000 families northwards out of Kosovo.

Alongside the spirit of the glorious defeat, Serb history contains the noble retreat. It is part of the victim consciousness that permeates Serb nationalist ideology. In early 1996, as implementation of the Dayton peace agreement began, the Bosnian Serb leaders evacuated Serbs from Sarajevo in early 1996, using force to get the reluctant ones to move. Again, the noble retreat, better and safer than living under the wrong ruler.

It is not outlandish to think that Slobodan Milosevic, who has become adept at short-term manipulation of Serbian national consciousness, might utilise these potent historical symbols. A call from Belgrade to the Serbs of Kosovo to return to Mother Serbia, out of the clutches of their enemies and those who conspire against them, would be able to call on the imagery of 1389 and 1690.

So it may be that the air offensive is holding the door open, through which Milosevic will beckon his people home. But as they go, especially if the irregulars have already started to operate, it would give them some sour satisfaction to leave an irreparably damaged Kosovo behind.

Dan Smith is the Director of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo and chair of the board of IWPR.

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