Mali: Is France entering a desert quicksand?

This conflict could prove far more intractable than Western powers and West African backers anticipate.

As French troop reinforcements pour into Mali, there is concern in Western capitals that the engagement in this vast desert country could be more difficult and more protracted than many imagine.

At present the French have deployed 1,400 troops. France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told journalists: “There was combat yesterday, on the ground and from the air. There was more overnight and it is continuing at this moment.”

Their troops have the backing of the United Nations, as well as the West African regional grouping, ECOWAS.  Soldiers from the region are – after considerable delay – finally being deployed. Some 2,000 are promised by Chad and the first of Nigeria’s contingent of 900 troops are expected to arrive on Thursday.

When they can be readied, 3,300 West African troops should join the French in bolstering the poorly motivated, poorly led Malian army in their fight against the rebels. A range of European countries, Britain among them, have promised logistical support and training.

This appears to provide the French with the overwhelming force needed to take on the Islamists rebels, who now control Northern Mali.  But some in the diplomatic community worry that this may prove illusory.

The three rebel movements, Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) are tough, mobile and well-versed in desert warfare.

They have also considerable resources at their disposal.  Between them they are estimated to have extracted €40m over the last three years from a series of kidnappings.  Tobacco smuggling has bolstered their funds. This has provided them with the funds to purchase weapons from international suppliers.

It is not clear which source they turned to, but the usual channels are suspected. Former Eastern block countries head this list. These include Ukraine and Belarus. Vladimir Peftiev, who previously headed the Beltech Holding, a group of Belarusian arms producers and traders, last year had his assets frozen in Europe and was barred from entry. Iran, recently named as an exporter of ammunition to Africa, could be another source.

Military analysts are concerned about the downing of a French helicopter in Mali. The French military have so far refused to explain how it was destroyed, but there are suspicions that it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. If this is true, then the rebels pose a threat to French air-superiority.

But perhaps the most worrying element of the rebel strategy is their ability to blend into the local population. There are suggestions that the Islamists have begun to move families out of their homes in areas they control, so that they can assume the guise of local civilians, if the towns and villages are overrun.

Islamist fighters are deploying child soldiers and using the population as a shield against the offensive, a Malian army source told Agence France Presse. These people (the Islamists) have two strategies: using the population as a shield and child soldiers as fighters," the military leader said on condition of anonymity.

The vast wastes of the Sahara and the mobility of the fighters will make the rebels a tough enemy to dislodge. France, and its Western and West African backers, may have to prepare themselves for a long, difficult conflict.

 

A picture taken with a mobile phone reportedly showing Islamist insurgents in Gao. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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