Medieval armies jousting in a conflict without end

The war in Bosnia and the neighbouring Serb-held areas of Croatia is the kind that goes on for decades - and probably will. The forces of the three warring factions, plus allied groups in neighbouring Croatia and Serbia, exist in a self-sustaining equilibrium: when one starts looking strong enough to tip the balance, others gang up against it. And, from a purely military point of view, no one side is strong enough to inflict decisive defeats on the other.

In spite of all the media reports of "major offensives", it remains a peculiarly half-hearted war. None of the factions dares to risk heavy losses, and few of the individual combatants feel that dying is worthwhile. The terrain also discourages swift and decisive movement, especially during the severe Balkan winter. Like medieval armies, the warring factions are limited by the need to keep warm and feed themselves. The shortage of fuel is a further check on movement. The front lines, which usually run along strong natural features, have changed little in three years and, although television cameras focus on trouble, much of the country is at peace. But the leaders of the warring factions, elevated by the conflict to positions of power they would not merit in peacetime, probably feel they have little to gain from a general and permanent ceasefire.

It is possible that the Bosnian civil war could have been ended by resolute and firm UN action near the beginning, or by allowing the Bosnian Serbs to rampage unchecked before the Bosnian government forces built up strength, though both "ifs" are uncertain. Now it is too late. The Muslim-led Bosnian government forces (BiH) are in the ascendant and in no mood for compromise.

The numbers of troops available to the warring sides are misleading. The BiH can claim 110,000 - almost as big as the British regular army - but only a fraction are available at any one time, and they need to combine fighting with ordinary jobs. Initially, the Bosnian Serbs enjoyed an advantage because they had inherited most of the tanks and artillery of the former Yugoslav army.

At the moment, the balance is shifting in favour of the Bosnian government forces, but they have a long way to go and need to guard against the over- optimism that has attended every success they have so far achieved. The Bosnian government probably wants to keep fighting until it has attained the 50 per cent of Bosnian territory allotted to it under the peace plan. That could take years, and there is no guarantee that the goalposts would not have moved in the interim. A dramatic shift in the Bosnian government's favour is unlikely. Even if the UN arms embargo were now lifted and supplies of heavy weapons brought in, it would take months for the BiH to learn the complex techniques of "combined arms warfare".

Now the four-month ceasefire is over, the potential flashpoints are fairly obvious. They have not changed for three years. Chief among them is the Bosnian capital Sarajevo itself, the largest "enclave". The Serbs could cut it off completely, but have never done so. It has been part of the Bosnian game of cat and mouse, and will probably remain so. Bosnian government forces have threatened to capture Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital. Next comes the Posavina corridor to the north, linking the two lobes of Serb- held Bosnian territory, threatened from the south by the Bosnian II Corps in Tuzla, and by Croatian forces from the north. The Majevica hills to the south, from which the corridor can be shelled, will be a Muslim objective. The Stolica radio tower, east of Tuzla, standing on a 915-metre peak, is a crucial communications centre for the Serbs, and the Muslims are likely to try to seize that, as they recently seized the radio mast on the summit of the 1,919-metre Mount Vlasic, north of Travnik.

While the internal confrontation line between the Muslim/Croat forces and the Bosnian Serbs remains largely static, the appearance of flashpoints on the edges of Bosnia is causing concern. The first was the Bihac pocket, where the Bosnian government V Corps launched an offensive at the end of November, only to be promptly driven back. The Croatian army has now launched an attack on one of the Serb-held areas in Croatia. In the other three, the situation remains stable and it is probable that Croatia will avoid attacking elsewhere for fear of provoking Serbia into joining the Bosnian Serbs, and thus precipitating a wider war. At least, the UN hopes so.