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?

Michael Nagle / Stringer / Getty
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Let's use words not weapons to defeat Islamic State, says Syrian journalist

A group of citizen journalists who report on life inside Raqqa won recognition at the British Journalism Awards.

On Tuesday night, Abdalaziz Alhamza, from the Syrian campaign organisation Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), received the prestigious Marie Colvin Award at the British Journalism Awards on behalf of the group.

RBSS has been reporting from the northern Syrian city, Islamic State's de facto capital, since 2014 on the violence carried out both by the extremist group and the regime of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The independent organisation comprises 18 journalists based in Raqqa who are supported by 10 more journalists, who publish and translate their findings between Arabic and English, and help their reports reach a wider global audience. The RBSS Twitter feed has almost 70,000 followers, and their Facebook page has over 560,000 likes, marking them as a major news source for the area.

The creation of the group came as a reaction to the heavy stifling of media from within Syria, and aims to “shed light on the overlooking of these atrocities by all parties”, according to their website. Often, posts track the presence of Assad and IS forces in and around the city. Their news reports show the raids and deaths happening within the city, the impact of the ever-diminishing medical supplies and information about recent IS killings. Alongside these are posts which have a civilian-focus, giving voice to the people who are living inside Raqqa, such as local shopkeepers.

Speaking at the British Journalism Awards on Tuesday, Alhamza said: “In 2014, we realised two important things: the first is that the outside world was not going to help us, and the second is that we had to do something. Anything. So we created RBSS.”

Alhamza further explained the campaign group's aims: 

“Our goal was not only to expose IS criminality, but also to resist them. We did that by capturing and distributing images and videos of life in Raqqa under IS.”

“My colleagues and I never thought or even could imagine the level of suffering our people has been subjected to in the last five years. We learned the hard way that freedom doesn’t come cheap.”

“The scenes of extreme violence and humiliation the group visited on our city’s people. We wanted to make sure the world – even if it wasn’t going to help us – knew what was going on.

Though constantly living under threat, Alhamza’s speech last night showed the pride and importance that RBSS place on publishing the horrors of daily life within Syria.

“Our work shows that we can fight arms with words, and that ultimately is the only way to defeat them, and IS knows it.