The decision by French President Francois Hollande to launch airstrikes against Islamist militias occupying northern Mali has escalated the crisis in the West African state. Below, we highlight our core views on the evolving situation, and what it would take to change this. We also answer some frequently asked questions (FAQs).
Core View: Long Path To Reunification
France will succeed in preventing Islamist rebels from expanding their area of operations into Mali's more populous south, and BMI does not foresee a serious threat to the southern-based mining industry.
Airstrikes will be not be able to dislodge the rebels from their northern bases, a task which will require a dangerous and costly ground mission.
BMI predicts that a Nigerian-led West African force will be deployed to the south in the coming weeks, but that daunting logistical and military challenges will delay the recapture of northern Mali.
This is the beginning of a multi-year military deployment which faces the complex task of rebuilding the Malian state's authority over an arid region the size of France.
Key Risks To Core View
If France is willing to support an African mission with ground troops, the timetable for a regional intervention could be moved forward dramatically. This is only likely, however, if rebel forces are able to follow through with their threat to retaliate with attacks against France itself.
BMI believes that the risk of France and its regional allies abandoning their plan to recapture northern Mali is very low, as is the likelihood that the rebels will be able to defeat an intervention force once it is fully operational.
Who Currently Controls Northern Mali?
Mali's government lost control of its sparsely-populated northern areas in April 2012 after a loose alliance of Islamist militias and Touareg separatists captured the region's major cities in the aftermath of a coup which overthrew Mali's elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré.
Islamist militias such as Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have since expelled their erstwhile allies and begun enforcing their strict interpretation of shari'a law in the traditionally moderate region. The United Nations estimates that almost 500,000 people had fled their homes in an effort to escape the rebels.
Why Has France Decided To Act Now?
The airstrikes, which began on January 11, come after multiple denials that France would intervene unilaterally. They followed an Islamist attack on the town of Konna in central Mali on January 10. By capturing the town, the rebels threatened Mopti, the northern-most of the cities still under government control. This was clearly a red line for Paris, with France's defence minister saying that allowing the rebels to advance further south could have caused the 'total destruction of the Malian state'.
|France's Line In The Sand|
|Mali - Government And Rebel-Held Areas|
Will The Airstrikes Be Effective?
The rebel forces that advanced towards Mopti have been forced to retreat with reports of heavy casualties, and BMI believes that Mali's southern cities are now largely secure. While bombing exposed units travelling across Mali's arid landscape is relatively easy, most of the rebels' fighters are based in the region's key towns. French airstrikes have destroyed arms caches in Gao, Kidal, Douentza, and Lere, but aerial bombardment cannot destroy a militia force that is integrated into the civilian population.
How Have Other International Actors Responded To The French Mission?
The French airstrikes have been supported by Mali's interim government, as well as by regional African governments and most Western powers. While the United States had supported a more incremental approach, Washington seems content to let France take the lead in dealing with the situation. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon cautioned that the mission should remain within applicable UN resolutions, but did not oppose France's involvement.
Where Do We Go From Here?
President Hollande has said that the French mission will continue until a regional force approved by the UN in December 2012 is in place to recapture northern Mali. While some 500 French troops have been deployed to the country, the bulk of the fighting will be done by troops from regional countries led by Nigeria.
While the French mission will expedite the deployment of this force, BMI has cautioned that a series of logistical and military challenges will prevent regional troops from recapturing northern Mali in the immediate term (see November 14 ' Starting On The Long Road To Intervention' on our online service).
BMI predicts that troops from regional states will be deployed to southern Mali in the coming weeks, but will first attend to retraining the Malian army and building a forward operating base at Mopti before they begin their attack on rebel positions.
What Are The Downside Risks Of An Intervention?
Within Mali, an armed attempt to reunite the country risks significantly increasing the conflict's death toll and aggravating the already severe refugee crisis. This burden will also be felt by neighbouring states, especially Niger and Burkina Faso. The concentration of Mali's primarily agricultural and mining-based economy in the southern territories, however, means that the economic impact of the mission is likely to be relatively minor ( BMI predicts headline GDP growth of 3.1% in 2013).
Further afield, the leading role played by France has increased the risk that AQIM or other Islamist groups may retaliate against European targets, especially the large French expatriate communities present in regional states.