Kosovo: Chronicle of a Mess Foretold

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President Clinton on Friday defined NATO's objective as securing conditions for the refugees to return to an autonomous Kosovo. But he reiterated his belief that this could be achieved via air strikes. "The administration is gearing up for a long-term bombing campaign," says TIME correspondent Douglas Waller. "But it's not prepared to put ground troops into a hostile environment -- it'll use them only to secure whatever cease-fire deal emerges." In other words, NATO appears unlikely to bring any new element into the battle.

That leaves the strategic initiative in Milosevic's hands. "It wouldn't be at all surprising if Milosevic now begins to sue for peace in the hope of ending his battle with NATO in a position of strength," says Dowell. The temptation for Milosevic to pursue a "peace offensive" would be strengthened by the limits on NATO's options. Despite discussing protecting Kosovar Albanians in an autonomous zone, the alliance remains loath to fight its way in. A ground invasion of Kosovo would demand more than 100,000 troops, and would inevitably involve extensive casualties. "If Milosevic stopped his offensive, withdrew some of his forces and opened dialogue on a peace plan that would allow NATO to save face, that would likely be an attractive option to at least some of NATO," says Dowell. Indeed, on Friday French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine said peace talks could begin if Milosevic halted his offensive and reduced his forces in Kosovo to the levels agreed with NATO last October.

Whatever the shape of an eventual settlement, the only given is that the Rambouillet peace deal, whose failure precipitated current bombing campaign, is dead. The ethnic Albanians can't be expected to accept remaining under Serb rule, and the Serbs haven't yet been militarily persuaded to relinquish their control over any part of the province. Thus as NATO develops ideas about creating a protected enclave in Kosovo and the Serbs continue to depopulate predominantly ethnic Albanian areas, the two sides could find themselves moving toward some form of compromise. Thursday's talks between Milosevic and moderate ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova on the need for a political solution underscore the possibility of a Milosevic peace offensive. "Rugova may have decided that without NATO ground troops, there's nowhere else to go but seek a deal with Milosevic to save whatever he can of Kosovo from destruction," says Dowell.

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