AT 7 pm tonight, NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] will begin protective air patrols over Bosnia to enforce a seven-month-old no-fly zone. American, French, Dutch and British warplanes and German reconnaissance aircraft are already in position to begin a mission so long overdue that Serbs, Muslims and Croats alike had long assumed it would never get off the ground. With its resolve strengthened by a landmark ruling from the International Court of Justice in The Hague last week, the 16-member alliance has at last agreed on positive military action in a country which, although technically outside the NATO area, has become a cancer of instability and turmoil at its geographic heart. The Court granted Bosnia the right to protection and NATO has gone a small step towards providing it. Yet many observers fear the move is more political than strategic. What may look from within NATO and the headquarters of the United Nations like a long-overdue display of mettle and resolve, appears from the outside to be too little, too late and too half-hearted. It is a restricted operation, enfeebled by British ambivalence, NATO-wide budgetary constraints and Russian protection for the Serbs in the UN Security Council. Nor is it clear that the latest show of resolve that the plan is intended to promote is either workable or desirable. For NATO certainly, the operation represents a number of important firsts and a huge boost to morale for an organisation which has been looking for a role since the collapse of its Soviet and Warsaw Pact adversaries. It is the first time in its 45-year history that the Alliance has taken on a live joint combat mission. Individual member states and groups of states have gone to war before, but never NATO as a body. It is also the first time that NATO has officially undertaken missions out of its own territory and - most significant of all - the first time German troops will have taken part in combat operations outside the NATO area. Following a constitutional ruling by Germany's Supreme Court last week, the German crews monitoring Bosnian airspace from early warning AWACS planes will now be permitted to direct NATO aircraft to potential targets. The Court's decision brought thousands of demonstrators on to the streets yesterday in protest. What the no-fly operation will do for Bosnia is less obvious. Imposed by the UN last October, the ban has been broken virtually at will since then by all three warring factions. It has become little more than a joke, significant only as a potent symbol of the international dithering th In the short term, however, the main worry must be that grand gestures in the air will tend to distract attention from the bankruptcy of the international community's policies on the ground. The much vaunted Vance-Owen peace plan, which the Bosnian Serbs have no intention of signing, shows no sign of putting an end to the war. A year of international caution has allowed the Serbs to take control of 70 per cent of the country, while Vance-Owen would leave them with 43 per cent of the land, few industrial or natural resources and without the land corridor linking them to the rest of Serbia they demand as a precondition of ending their aggression. They deserve none of the spoils of victory. To grant them more would fly in the face of the principle that territory cannot be seized by conquest. Yet such principles hold little weight in civil war. Unless the plan is redrawn, the war, the ethnic cleansing and the Serb aggression will continue unabated. It may be time to consider the more difficult decision of re-drawing the map to give the Serbs some of what they want and then send in the international troops to stop them helping themselves to more.