After two weeks of airstrikes, French and Malian soldiers have pushed Islamic rebels out of the city of Gao. Gao is the largest city in Northern Mali by population, and the loss of its stronghold will be a massive blow to the rebels. Very soon they will be pushed out of all major settlements and will most likely return to guerrilla warfare – more manageable for the Malian government. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic; the problem won’t disappear overnight, and it’ll take Mali a long time to recover from this disastrous episode. But French intervention certainly seems to have sped up the process of pushing the Islamists out of the region and hopefully, in time, restoring stability to the country.
This is a highly significant development in a story which most people probably won’t know much about – a true fringe story, so to speak, although it shouldn’t be.
In April last year Tuareg rebels, equipped with weapons and experience from mercenaries returning from the 2011 Libyan Civil War, managed to take control of the north of Mali after a military coup left the country unstable. It is generally accepted that the Tuareg people, native nomadic inhabitants of the central Sahara region, do have legitimate grievances, although the international community has condemned the insurgency. On the 6th April the Independent State of Azawad was declared, and has to date not been recognised by a single country.
As 2012 progressed the insurgency took, from a Western perspective, a sinister turn as Islamist groups, the largest of which is called Ansar Dine, became more influential. In June the Islamist-Tuareg alliance collapsed and conflict broke out between parties and militias of the two alignments. This conflict resulted in a victory for the Islamists, pushing the Tuareg forces out of their own self-declared homeland. As can be imagined, these events have made many a Western leader uneasy. Talks have been made of sending an international, United Nations mandated force to retake the north of the country, headed by the The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS). France, the previous colonial power of Mali until 1960, had said it would not be directly involved in such military operations.
Life in Islamist, extreme Sharia-following Mali, or ‘Azawad’, has not been pleasant. Unverified but brutal reports have been filtering out of the region in the last year including stories of public executions, the destruction of historical mausoleums in Timbuktu and even the banning of music. Human rights groups have decried gross violations of international law, but the negotiations and inaction goes on.
Then the Islamists began to march southward. On the 10th January 2013 Islamist forces captured the strategic town of Konna in central Mali, threatening the entire country. This appears to have been a ‘red line’ for France. While one would like to think France is concerned about the human rights of the millions of Malians who could be subject to a Sharia-based totalitarian rule, their main motivations are probably more to do with an economic interest in Mali and fear of creating a hive for terrorism within Africa. The official reason is to protect the 6,000 French citizens residing in the country.
Whatever the motivations, President Hollande of France yesterday ordered the French military to intervene.
In remarkably fast-moving events, the French military appears to have helped the Malian army push back the Islamist advances. These skirmishes alone may have caused more than 100 casualties. In another move, the French military launched an operation to rescue Denis Allex, held by similar Islamist group Al-Shabaab in Somalia, due to fears of reprisals for the intervention. Tragically the operation was a failure and is thought to have led to the death of Allex and two French soldiers. France has also made moves to increase security at home over fears of potential terrorist attacks on French soil in retaliation for the intervention.
The future of this crisis could now go many ways. The French air-force has begun launching airstrikes against militants in the north which I fear will only lead to more innocent deaths, though may be necessary to ensure a swift victory. It is not clear whether there is yet either the will or the capability to retake the north, though this will certainly be soon a priority. Content that the situation has stabilised, France may wait for the United Nations to respond.