Analysis: Burkina Faso coup a blow to France, as Sahel military mission unravels

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Burkina Faso coup raises more questions about France’s mission

Latest setback for Paris-led anti-militant operations in Sahel

Turmoil in region caused by growing jihadist threat

Violence could destabilise Sahel, add to migrant exodus

As France’s influence wanes, that of Russia grows

PARIS, Jan 25 – The military coup in Burkina Faso deals another heavy blow to France’s fading efforts to stabilise the Sahel region, where Islamist militants have grown in strength and people’s attitudes towards former colonial masters have hardened.

Successive coups in Mali, Chad and now Burkina Faso have weakened Paris’ local alliances, emboldened jihadists who control large swathes of territory and opened the door for Russia to fill the vacuum.

Diplomats warn that spiralling violence could give fresh impetus to migration from West Africa to Europe. It also threatens international mining operations and stability in strategic French partners like Ivory Coast and Senegal.

There have been tactical military successes since France intervened in its former colony Mali in 2013 to prevent militants advancing on the capital Bamako before going on to lead Western efforts to stabilise the region.

It led operations that targeted the top tier leadership of al Qaeda and Islamic State’s regional affiliates.

Some analysts say that were France now to pull out, it could lead to trouble.

“This (coup in Burkina Faso) puts the French in a difficult position because they’ve come down hard in Mali … The whole regional fight requires them to be working closely with whoever is in charge,” said Michael Shurkin, a former CIA officer and director of global programs at 14 North Strategies consultancy.

“If they (the French) were to walk away then this whole thing completely falls apart.”

That leaves tough choices for French President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to seek re-election in a few weeks’ time and wants to underline his leadership credentials.

“I would remind you that our priority in the region is to fight against Islamist terrorism,” a defiant Macron said in response to the Burkina Faso coup. Whether he succeeds is unclear.

SERIES OF SETBACKS

Macron’s policy in the Sahel since 2017 has been to make local forces responsible for their own security over the long term. To do that, thousands of French troops were deployed and 1 billion euros spent each year on Operation Barkhane.

But two coups in Mali in the last 18 months, with the junta now refusing to step aside for a civilian transition, upended that strategy.

Macron sought to adapt. Last June, he started reducing troop numbers from some 5,000 to 4,000 with the objective to halve the contingent later this year.

He pulled out of three key bases in northern Mali to return security control to Malian authorities and the United Nations, which has some 14,000 peacekeepers stationed in the country.

The aim was to focus French efforts on counter-terrorism, to hunt down Islamist leaders and nurture a European special forces taskforce – the Takuba – to accompany local troops in operations and signal Europe was able to unite in a common cause.

But France’s relationship with the Malian junta, which it wants to persuade to accept a transition to democracy, has collapsed to the point where Macron had to cancel plans to visit troops stationed in Mali at Christmas after the junta refused to meet him.

Accusing Paris of abandoning it after withdrawing from the northern cities, the junta turned to Russian-linked mercenaries to fill the void.

When France intervened in Mali in 2013 its fighter jets were key to halting the Islamist advance. Nine years later those same warplanes in November were dropping flares to warn off civilians blocking French military convoys.

Tough sanctions imposed by the regional economic bloc ECOWAS on Mali have not deterred the junta. On the contrary, people have turned on the bloc, blaming it for being France’s lackey.

French-backed efforts to implement new U.N. sanctions were vetoed by Russia and China, creating the sentiment that France was against the Malians.

That growing frustration spilled into Burkina Faso on Monday. A Reuters reporter saw a group burning a French flag just hours after the coup, while placards read “Together we say no to France. Shit to France!”

“Today, Burkinabe people are asking for Russia’s support to accompany them in this fierce struggle that has been imposed on us,” coup supporter Armel Kabore told Reuters.

TROOPS NOT WELCOME

The Takuba force comprises 14 countries of which the majority are eastern European and Scandinavian. Its strength on the ground – about 600 that includes medical and logistical teams – is more symbolic than operationally significant.

But now there is a profound malaise among Europeans about the presence of Russia and mercenaries and the political crisis.

“Nobody knows what to do. Nobody wants to stay at any cost. In Mali, the junta has to be convinced to accept a credible transition. But we will follow the French,” said a European diplomat whose country contributes to the Takuba task force.

France is desperate to ensure nobody leaves, having staked so much on “Europeanising” the Sahel intervention. Some have reaffirmed their commitment, such as Estonia. Sweden kept to plans to withdraw some 100 personnel in March.

It may not be up to France. Mali’s junta this week asked Denmark to immediately withdraw troops it deployed at the start of January as part of Takuba, despite Copenhagen later saying they had a clear invitation to be there.

Should the junta decide to ask Takuba to leave, that would severely limit Paris. Niger, which is now France’s main operational base in the region, has already ruled out taking additional foreign forces, officials have said.

Diplomats say the cost of withdrawing fully would be too great for France, given the military kudos it has earned with key allies including the United States. But it may have to refine its strategy once again.

“Maybe Barkhane goes away and then the French just shift their focus all the more to the littoral countries,” said Shurkin of the 14 North Strategies consultancy.

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Additional reporting by Bate Felix and Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Mike Collett-White