- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

After a decade of ground battles and air campaigns elsewhere in the Balkans, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is now on the verge of ethnic civil war. If the recent past is any guide, we can be reasonably sure NATO will again become involved.

In the case of Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO troops were brought in to police the boundaries between ethnic groups, and it seems as though Western troops will remain deployed in both areas for years to come. Unless the West chooses a decisively different course, and soon, Macedonia will also undergo ethnic partition.

Until a few months ago, Macedonia was the only republic of the former Yugoslavia to declare its independence and avoid conflict. Now, it is the latest theater of "sub-Balkanization," as members of its Albanian minority supported and armed, if not led, by neighboring Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters challenge the territorial integrity of Macedonia.

Albanian guerrillas fighting under the banner of the National Liberation Army (NLA) demand greater rights and privileges from the Macedonian government. Their plan is based on the successful three-point precedent used by the KLA against Serbia in 1998 and 1999:

First, engage in terrorist attacks against government and civilian targets. Second, design the attacks to provoke a violent government response, especially against Albanian villages and civilians. Third, ensure that television and print media reporters capture the bloodshed for Western audiences.

The desired outcome? The West, led by the U.S., will intervene to divide Macedonia along ethnic lines, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, with no particular end game in sight. The NLA is hoping that added advantages will help achieve success. Unlike the Serbian army that fought the KLA, the Macedonian army is small, poorly equipped and trained, and perhaps poorly motivated. To pursue the guerrillas effectively, the Macedonian government must be prepared to accept a drawn-out conflict that will certainly involve battlefield deaths.

The NLA is well-armed and backed by battle-hardened KLA fighters from Kosovo, who are more experienced and perhaps more committed to tearing Macedonia apart than their Slavo-Macedonian adversaries are to keeping it together. The NLA is composed of one ethnic group Albanians. The Macedonian army, composed primarily of Slavo-Macedonian conscripts, has an Albanian minority within its ranks that cannot be used in the government´s campaign against the guerrillas. The NLA controls and decides when and where the fighting occurs and at what level of intensity.

The expected NLA strategy will therefore consist of continued attacks against government troops, and perhaps even civilians, until the price in blood becomes too high for Slavo-Macedonians to pay, or NATO to tolerate. At that stage, there will be a call for a cease-fire that, in what is now a Balkan tradition, will be ensured by the presence of NATO troops enforcing the division of the country along ethnic lines.

Can the West do anything to avoid this scenario? Possibly, but the options are limited. Air power is of little help. Unlike in Bosnia or Kosovo, the enemy is not a standing army with obvious targets we can bomb. It consists of few hundred or thousand guerrillas.

Nor is the West prepared to do in Macedonia what it would not do in either Bosnia or Kosovo: put its own troops on the ground to do the actual fighting. That would mean casualties among its own forces, which the alliance is not willing to accept.

If the rebels are to be stopped, the Skopje government will have to do the job itself, by seizing the initiative, actively engaging the rebels, ejecting them from Macedonian territory, and sealing the northern Macedonian border adjacent to the main guerrilla base camps in Kosovo. In its current state, Macedonia is not capable of such an enterprise.

Therefore, NATO´s only option is to swiftly and thoroughly equip, supply, train, and arm the Macedonian military. The alliance must act now to retrieve the situation by dispatching NATO Special Forces trainers, logisticians and intelligence experts. Macedonian forces must be taught to conduct search-and-destroy missions in difficult terrain and to coordinate fire support from artillery and attack helicopters with infantry operations against the guerrillas in a manner that scrupulously minimizes civilian casualties and property damage.

Moreover, the Macedonians must learn to effectively gather and interpret intelligence and to run a logistics system capable of supporting its fighting forces in the field. A well-organized and determined NATO training mission will be the clearest message the alliance can send to emphasize that violent insurgencies in the Balkans will no longer be tolerated. Lord Byron´s concerns regarding "in for a penny, in for a pound" are as true for the Balkans today as they were in the 1820s. If the NATO commitment to Macedonian territorial integrity is piecemeal, so too will be the result. If the commitment is decisive, the benefits will be many.

Of course, the West should continue to encourage the political negotiations now under way in Macedonia to help bring the fighting to an end. Strengthening the capacity of the Skopje government to fight will help not hurt those negotiations.

Indeed, Balkan governments will recognize Western political and military support for Macedonia as support for their territorial integrity. That can only bolster confidence in their own ability to secure their borders against future threats. The KLA will understand that the Kosovo chapter must come to a peaceful and diplomatic conclusion, with no further violence in Macedonia.

The U.S. and its NATO allies will avoid yet another open-ended deployment of troops in the Balkans. NATO does not need to compound the inevitable difficulties it will face when it extracts its peacekeepers from Bosnia and Kosovo by having to formulate an exit-strategy for Macedonia as well.

The Balkan wars of the last decade have already lasted too long. To end the "sub-Balkanization" of former Yugoslavian republics, NATO must act now in Macedonia.

Harry Dinella is a policy adviser at the Western Policy Center and a former U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer for the Balkans.

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