By Melisa Tezcan
A military coup earlier this year saw the northern region of Mali fall into the hands of Islamic and separatist rebels. Eight months on and the rebels have maintained their hold, causing thousands of citizens to flee their homes and sparking an international humanitarian crisis.
Taking back the northern region of Mali from the rebels looks set to result in bloodshed. With the U.N. backing a military intervention and the rebels prepared to retaliate at all costs, commentators have argued that “war” in Mali is now “inevitable”. The assumption here is that the intervention will lead to prolonged and intense violence amongst the rebels.
Arguably, were E.U. and U.N. countries willing to deploy troops, and Algeria willing to offer military assistance, the intervention would be considerably more effective and the risk of sustained conflict significantly reduced. Increased military presence in the region may provoke settlement negotiations with some rebel groups, whilst bolstering the chance of success against others. According to Gregory Mann, Mali commentator and professor at Columbia University, “If the military skill set and political willpower is there… it would not be enormously difficult to remove the[se] Islamist fighters”.
At this stage however, policy makers are limited in both these regards. Mali itself is politically fragile. The government infrastructure rests upon a tentative coalition between the military and the executive. Both factions are relatively unpopular and lack political clout. Given this, the U.N deemed that strategic responsibility for the intervention should lie with the wider regional group ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States).
This in itself has proved problematic and reaching a consensus has not been easy. According to ECOWAS director for external relations, Abdel Fatau Musah, there are a number of “stakeholders” whose values need to be reflected in the policy, namely those of neighbouring countries, Algeria and Mauritania, the former of which is particularly opposed to any form of military intervention.
Furthermore, even if a policy is devised within ECOWAS, it may be met with scepticism on the grounds that the organisation does not have a sound human rights record when it comes to the deployment of troops. If it is to gather the support of the international community, and thereby swift implementation, accountability must be built into the proposal.
Looking to the military component, there are additional limitations that need to be considered. As previously mentioned, Western nations including France and U.S will not be offering support in the form of military personnel. These constituents will come directly from Mali and its regional allies in ECOWAS; around 6000 troops in total. When we consider the vast terrain of northern Mali, around the size of Texas, together with thousands of miles of borderland – this military provision is relatively underwhelming. Looking at these figures in relation to the number of rebel recruits thought to be in the region, there is certainly cause for concern.
Furthermore, the military infrastructure itself is flawed. There are deep fissures between military ranks that need to be reformed before deployment can take place. Many troops remain disillusioned with the central government, and the possibility of their defection remains high. Policy makers need to be wary of the dangers that heavily armed, yet unprincipled, personnel may pose, as there is a risk that these individuals will disperse and leave their weapons in the hands of the rebels.
At this stage, we can be relatively certain that a military intervention in northern Mali is on the cards. What is still up for debate is whether or not this will lead to an outright conflict. Certainly, according to some rebel leaders, intervention means war. Hamaha, head of security for rebel group MUJAO, has threatened retaliation: “If an international or Malian military force attacks us, we will take Bamako in 24 hours…the international community is slow to strike because it knows that if it does, it will spark a worldwide jihad”.
In order to minimise the likelihood and potency of these threats, the intervention itself would need to be swift, well managed and properly equipped. As it stands, with Algeria withholding its resources, the West withholding its troops and the Malian military in tatters, the intervention may serve only to ignite a spark that it is unable to put out.