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?

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Turkey's turmoil should worry David Cameron

Splits in the Turkish government could play into the Brexiteers' hands.

While Britain focused on Sadiq v Zac and Cameron v Corbyn, in Turkey an even more dramatic contest was coming to a head. For weeks there has been growing speculation about a split between Ahmet Davutoğlu, the wonkish prime minster, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the macho, mercurial kingpin of Turkish politics. The two men have differed over a growing crackdown on freedom of expression, the conflict with Kurdish militants in Turkey’s south east and Erdoğan’s ambitions to strengthen his own power. Yesterday, a nervous-sounding Davutoğlu confirmed on live television that he would leave his post.

To outside observers, this might seem like a faraway power struggle between two men with unpronounceable names. But it matters for Britain and the impending EU referendum in two crucial ways.

1. It throws the EU-Turkey refugee deal into doubt

The controversial €6bn agreement to stem the flows to Europe was born of the strong relationship between Davutoğlu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not only does President Erdoğan have a far more ambivalent attitude towards the EU. He has also made Merkel’s life difficult by demanding the prosecution of a German comedian who penned a crude poem about him.

Though much criticised, the EU-Turkey deal has dramatically reduced the numbers being smuggled by sea to Greece. If it collapses, Europe could be heading for a repeat of last year’s crisis, when more than 800,000 people arrived on Greek shores. In Britain, such scenes will only fuel concern about migration - a key driver of anti-EU sentiment.

2. It plays into the narrative of the Brexit camp

Brexiteers have already sought to use Erdoğan’s growing illiberalism - and Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU - to win people over to their side. Turkey’s “palace coup” (as the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet called it) cements the image of Erdoğan as an all-powerful leader who will not tolerate dissent. The accusations against Turkey are often ill-informed and tinged with Islamophobia. But they are clearly seen as effective by both sides in the referendum campaign. Only this week, David Cameron was forced to distance himself from his previous enthusiasm for Turkish accession, insisting that the prospect would not be on the cards “for decades.”

For now, Erdoğan’s intentions towards the EU deal are unclear. Perhaps he would like to take credit for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the Schengen Zone (but not the UK) - an attractive perk promised in return for Turkey’s cooperation. But it is just as easy to imagine him watching it collapse before railing against the perfidious west.

Either way, there will be nerves in Brussels, Berlin and London. Diplomats see the president as a much more difficult partner than Davutoğlu. “Erdoğan has to be handled very carefully,” said one official. “If Jean-Claude Juncker says something too blunt, who knows what will happen?”

Turkey still has several hurdles to clear before visa-free travel is approved. Ankara has made clear that it will not hold up its end of the bargain if the promise is not fulfilled. With the deadline for implementation set for the last day in June, the deal could begin imploding towards the end of next month. That, David Cameron will surely note with a gulp, would be just in time for the EU referendum.