April 2001 - The recent flare-up of fighting in Macedonia, with hundreds of ethnic Albanian rebels challenging Macedonian security forces in the region near the Kosovo border, appeared to threaten the stability, if not the territorial integrity, of Macedonia.

The rebels retreated after an artillery and tank offensive by the Macedonian army during the last week of March. Previously, ethnic Albanian guerrillas had also attacked Serb police in the Presevo Valley in the southern part of Serbia, the larger of the two Yugoslav republics. In an effort to stop the border incursions, NATO permitted Yugoslav security forces to patrol the area where Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia proper meet.

This is an ironic twist of fate since, only two years ago, warplanes from the United States and other NATO countries bombed targets in Yugoslavia in defense of ethnic Albanian rebels. And it will come as no surprise if the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) in Macedonia, after an appropriate time-out, returns for round two against the ill-equipped Macedonian army in an attempt to unite the Albanian-dominated area of Macedonia with Albanian-dominated Kosovo.

Moreover, the NLA can expect support from elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in future attacks against Macedonia. This newly convoluted, more volatile situation raises a compelling question: What are the primary U.S. policy objectives in and around Kosovo?

Clear U.S. goals in Kosovo have remained unarticulated since the end of the NATO air war in June 1999. The primary U.S. policy objectives, and the ancillary issues associated with them, revolve around the following:

Does the United States intend to permit Kosovo to become an independent nation?
Will Washington use its influence to ensure that Kosovo remains part of Yugoslavia?
How long is the United States prepared to stay in Kosovo regardless of which of the above options its prefers?
Independence for Kosovo was never a stated objective during the 1999 air war. The goal of the United States and other NATO countries was to stop the atrocities against Kosovar Albanians, including the forcible expulsion of hundreds of thousands of civilians from the province once the air campaign began.

However, since the end of the air war, there has been hushed talk among some Western diplomats that independence for Kosovo—or autonomy bordering on independence—may be inevitable. The ramifications of such a policy are enormous. There are many countries that have varied ethnic populations within their respective borders. Redrawing the boundaries of countries to accommodate minorities could lead to, and may actually encourage, civil war and chaos. Adjacent to the Balkans, NATO allies Greece and Turkey are highly troubled by the potential for Kosovo independence.

Turkey already remains on alert against renewed violence by Kurdish extremists seeking an independent Kurdish state in the southeast region. Greece is concerned about the effect an independent Kosovo would have on Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus or the Muslim minority in the Western Thrace region of northern Greece. And, in the short term, if the fighting in Macedonia resumes and intensifies, thousands of refugees may flood into Greece, creating an economic burden for Athens and potentially radicalizing segments of more than 500,000 Albanian economic refugees that Greece has absorbed in the past decade.

If the genuine U.S. goal is to help create a diverse society in which Serbs and ethnic Albanians can live together in peace in an independent Kosovo, it will require an expensive, long-term commitment by the United States and its NATO allies to keep Kosovar Serbs and Albanians apart. However, the American public could grow weary of an open-ended military commitment in Kosovo, especially if American lives are lost trying to stop another war in the Balkans.

Nevertheless, the withdrawal of NATO-led peacekeepers from an independent Kosovo could have serious consequences, including attacks on Serbs in the province, prompting Yugoslavia to respond militarily to protect its compatriots. Yugoslavia has another important reason to prevent independence for Kosovo: a desire to reclaim the land it regards as the cradle of Serbian civilization.

Many monuments to Serbian civilization are located in Kosovo, including the famous battleground at Kosovo Polje—the "Field of Blackbirds"—where Serbs fought the invading Ottomans in 1389. Moreover, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, favorably viewed for his efforts to reintegrate his country into European and international institutions, is reported to be a Serb nationalist who favors keeping Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia.

Alternatively, the U.S. goal in Kosovo may be to return it to Yugoslavia as a province. However, once U.S. and other NATO military forces are withdrawn from the region, Serbs and Kosovar Albanians could begin fighting as they did in 1999. In this scenario, NATO may find it difficult to return to this Balkan powder keg.

First, Washington's allies might not be willing to cooperate as they did in 1999. For instance, Greece, although a member of NATO, might not permit the alliance to use its ports as it did during the air war. The vast majority of the Greek population was opposed to the bombing, in large part due to the perception that the KLA was destabilizing the Balkans and that its ultimate goal was the creation of a Greater Albania, including areas in northern Greece. In addition, strong Orthodox Christian ties between Serbs and Greeks fueled anti-war sentiment in Greece.

Second, the Russian response to renewed NATO action in the region should be considered. Russia opposed NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia but did not take action to stop it. Russia's reaction in the future may be much stronger under its current president, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, than under Boris Yeltsin in 1999. A strong objection from Russia, with its considerable nuclear arsenal, could limit future action in the region by NATO forces.

In the end, the United States still has no clearly stated objective for being in Kosovo. Indeed, given the circumstances, it may be easier in the short term not to have a Kosovo policy. On the one hand, Washington does not view itself as a power that separates legally and internationally recognized territory from another state, as the KLA seeks for Kosovo. On the other hand, the NATO alliance could not stand by in 1999 and watch Serbian forces wage a brutal campaign of intimidation and terror against Kosovar Albanians.

Nonetheless, the lack of a definitive U.S. policy in this turbulent area carries serious consequences. The situation in and around Kosovo is deteriorating, with ethnic Albanians staging insurgencies in Macedonia and southern Serbia. Any attempt to impose even the mildest form of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo again would likely result in renewed fighting by KLA guerrillas in the province. The cycle of killing and atrocities would begin again, and hundreds of thousands of civilians would risk being displaced once more.

Similarly, if the NLA successfully wages a violent insurgency in Macedonia, NATO may find itself separating the combatants with yet another peacekeeping force. At that stage, ethnic Albanians may demand that the region they dominate in Macedonia, constituting about 17 percent of the country's territory, be carved out and united with either Kosovo or Albania to form a "Greater" entity.

In the absence of clearly stated goals that can be supported by the American public, there may be a demand in Congress and the media that U.S. troops be withdrawn from the Balkans. This would more likely occur if U.S. troops suffer casualties trying to prevent the infiltration of KLA guerrillas into Macedonia.

Regardless of the policy that is developed, the U.S. commitment to peacekeeping in the region cannot be indefinite. After carefully considering the consequences of withdrawal from the region, Washington must formulate a viable exit strategy for ending its involvement in and around Kosovo.

Col. John E. Betts was formerly a Reserve Air Attach? to the U.S. Defense Attach? Office, U.S. Embassy, Athens. He is currently an attorney in private practice in Virginia.

This article is adapted from an earlier version posted on the Western Policy Center's website. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may or may not reflect the opinions of the Western Policy Center, the U.S. government, or the U.S. Department of Defense.