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Opportunity for NATO in Kosovo?

By John Sitilides <>,
Executive Director, The Western Policy Center1

Washington, D.C.
Friday, April 2 1999

Serbia continues to withstand massive air strikes against its military targets, as NATO forces carry out their orders to terminate Slobodan Milosevic's military campaign against Kosovo. Milosevic has successfully defied his adversaries, confounded Western strategists, and moved closer to achieving his aims in Kosovo even under the relentless pounding of NATO missiles and bombs.

At the end of the day, the Kosovo crisis remains unresolved. Will there be autonomy or independence for the Serb province? What becomes of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Albania, F.Y.R. Macedonia, and Greece? How is a recurrence of war prevented? And what are the opportunities and pitfalls for NATO as the 50th anniversary celebrations near?

Diplomats are desperate to prevent the Kosovo war from spreading onto a wider European battlefield, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, emerging from their pre-war humiliation, are trying to reassert Moscow's relevance in Balkan and broader European affairs.

Our European allies have put on a face of bravery and resolve to mask the political schisms developing each day that television broadcasts images of hungry and desperate Kosovar women and children against a backdrop of bombing runs that seem to produce few positive results. As the rarely mentioned but quietly creeping bombing deadline - artificially imposed by the opening of the NATO summit in Washington on April 23 - nears, Washington and Brussels would do well to exploit a potential opportunity to end the air campaign and avoid a divisive inter-alliance debate about a possible ground offensive against Serb forces.

NATO members would certainly sign onto an arrangement that accomplishes the stated objectives of the military campaign, that is, Yugoslavia's return to the negotiating table and an end to the ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians, under preserved American and NATO credibility. With the cohesiveness of NATO a foremost priority, allies closest to the battlefield, such as Italy and Greece, have begun exploring risks for peace.

Greece, a member of both NATO and the European Union, which enjoys friendly ties to Serbia, has forcefully condemned Milosevic's ethnic cleansing campaign. At the same time, the Greek government is defying domestic opposition from extremist groups to keep open the port facilities in Thessaloniki, through which essential reinforcements such as military vehicles and logistical supplies are being transported to NATO peacekeepers now stationed in F.Y.R. Macedonia. NATO Secretary General Javier Solana has not ruled out initiatives by NATO members other than the U.S. to strike the right deal to secure a just end to the war. Greece's more impartial stance offers the opportunity to deliver a clear and blunt message to Belgrade on behalf of the alliance: the end of the war is a decision wholly dependent upon Milosevic.

Athens may be able to persuade Milosevic to suspend the siege of Kosovo immediately and return to the negotiating table, if there is understanding that the agreement signed by the Kosovar Albanian delegation at Rambouillet remains flexible. Specifically, the return of refugees to an autonomous Kosovo could be monitored under a non-NATO peacekeeping force consisting of troops from NATO countries; from Russia, which has cooperated with the West in Bosnia; and from non-area neutral countries experienced in peacekeeping, such as Argentina and New Zealand. This force could be built upon the concept of the Southeast European Brigade (SEEBRIG), the multinational Balkan peacekeeping task force to be led by Greece, Italy, and Turkey. Unless one posits that the credibility of NATO is utterly at stake, the Rambouillet agreement is not sacrosanct. Milosevic was ready to sign an earlier agreement brokered by U.S. Ambassador to F.Y.R. Macedonia Christopher Hill that provided for a non-NATO force to monitor the implementation of the agreement.

That deal was shattered by Western deferral to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), understood by Balkan experts as the military arm of authoritarian Sali Berisha, former president of Albania, who is rousing Albanian nationalism as his doorway to power once more. In the process, Kosovo's more moderate, duly elected political leadership was utterly marginalized during peace negotiations. Astoundingly, American officials only one year ago accurately charged the KLA with employing terrorist tactics to assault Serbian and ethnic Albanian civilians as part of a larger campaign to achieve independence from Yugoslavia through the forcible change of internationally recognized borders. The NATO alliance, which has assumed the burden of ending the Kosovo conflict between the KLA and Serb forces, has an obligation to impress upon the Kosovar Albanians that they can have peace, they can have land, and they can have autonomy - but they cannot have independence. Otherwise, in the months and years ahead, NATO should prepare for similar conflicts and burdens when Yugoslavia's republic of Montenegro and Serbia's province of Vojvodina on the Hungarian border move toward independence, or when a growing Albanian minority in F.Y.R. Macedonia demands secession in order to be annexed to Albania.

Milosevic is continuing the violent expulsion of ethnic Albanians from the northern half of Kosovo, where Kosovo's capital Pristina, historic Orthodox Christian monasteries, and rich natural resources are situated. Having pushed the remaining Kosovars into a smaller area comprised of the southern half of Kosovo proper, he may be ready to accept cease-fire incentives. Yugoslavia's signing of an agreement, after an impressive show of allied military might, Greece's stern admonitions, and a little help from Russia, can open the door to longer-term stability in the Balkans.

The immediate outcome? Washington declares victory. NATO proclaims its mission accomplished. Ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians ends under restored freedom and self-rule. Serbia acquiesces to the creation of a smaller autonomous province beyond its effective control. Greece, Italy, and Turkey, together, lead the regional peacekeeping mission. Yugoslavia's international borders remain unchanged. Secessionist minorities are discouraged. The U.S.-Russia partnership, high on President Clinton's agenda, is back on track. The alternative? Western armed forces planning for a grueling ground assault against ferocious, battle-tested Serb fighters. Tens of thousands more civilians killed and maimed. Hundreds of thousands of refugees facing no imminent end to mass suffering. The potential destabilization of Greece and F.Y.R. Macedonia through large-scale refugee absorption and ethnic Albanian agitation. New calls for a Greater Albania by Berisha's forces. Continued Western frustration and potential failure at the hands of the wily, authoritarian Serbian remnant of old-style Communism. Devastated NATO credibility, especially among new member states and future candidates in the Balkans.

And all this against the backdrop of NATO officials and diplomats gathering in Washington in three weeks to celebrate the alliance's 50th anniversary, clinking their champagne glasses, toasting the end of the Cold War ten years ago, and pondering their relevance in Kosovo, Europe, and the world.

1 [The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. Based in California since 1994, the Center opened new offices in Washington, D.C. in February 1998.]

2 This article was published as an op-ed in the April 2, 1999 issue of the Washington Times.