With the Syrian uprising and civil war approaching its second year, Turtle Bay decided to have a look at some of the underlying U.N. numbers -- some familiar and some more obscure -- that tell the toll of the country's suffering.
As United States and other wealthy governments converged on Kuwait for an international donor conference on Syria, Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, said the reality of the situation is potentially worse than we know, especially in the face of a bitterly cold winter. U.N. officials say it's hard to quantify the suffering, particularly given the Syrian government's refusal to let U.N. relief workers deliver assistance to rebel-controlled areas from neighboring Turkey. But Amos and other U.N. officials have detailed some of the lesser-known facts and figures to give a sense of the impact the crisis is having on ordinary Syrians, and the costs of not responding.
The scale of the suffering has generated calls from the United Nations for a massive humanitarian response, including appeals for $519 million in assistance for distressed Syrians inside their own country, and another $1 billion for Syrian refugees that have fled the country's violence.
In recent days, the U.N. and international advocacy groups cited figures suggesting that the international community has been unwilling to pay the price for responding to the need. A coalition of non-governmental organizations singled out six countries -- Brazil, Japan, China, South Korea, Russia, and Mexico -- that together account for a quarter of the world's GDP, but which have provided little or no funding. "Donors have not stepped up to their responsibilities in this past period," said John Ging, the U.N. humanitarian relief agencies director of operations.
But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in Kuwait today that the U.N. surpassed its target with more than $1.5 billion in pledges, easily meeting its funding appeals. The key donors include:
But government pledges at donor conferences don't always result in money spent.
U.N. officials said that the Kuwait conference was a promising start. "Money has been pledged, but that is just the start," Amos said after the conference. "We now have to do all we can to turn that into action on the ground -- but the environment in which we work is extremely challenging."
Indeed, it is. On Tuesday, the French aid agency, Medecins Sans Frontiers, protested that international assistance was primarily being delivered to civilians in government-controlled areas.
Ging challenged that assessment, saying that at least 48 percent of international assistance was being delivered by the Syrian Red Crescent and a handful of other international relief organizations to opposition areas.
But he acknowledged that the U.N. has gained little access to rebel-controlled territory in the north, primarily as a result of the Syrian government's refusal to permit them access through the Turkish border. Ging said the U.N. was relying on the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to verify whether money channeled through the Syrian Red Crescent is going to those in need, regardless of political affiliation.
But he said the U.N. is also not naïve about the risks of assistance being diverted to pro-government communities and that the organization is working to expand the presence of international relief agencies in Syria.
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U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi issued an impassioned appeal to U.N. Security Council members, particularly the United States and Russia, to put aside their differences and to take firmer action to help stop the bleeding in Syria.
The country, he warned, is on the verge of disintegrating and the Syrian combatants were undercutting prospects for any hope of a diplomatic settlement.
"I'm sorry if I sound like an old broken record," Brahimi told the council, according to notes of his briefing obtained by Turtle Bay. "The country is breaking up before everyone's eyes."
Brahimi told the council that the effort to persuade the warring factions to enter political talks had run aground, with the Syrian government and the armed opposition unwilling to talk to one another. Key regional powers, meanwhile, had picked sides in the conflict, transforming Syria into a "playground for competing forces."
The veteran U.N. trouble-shooter said the best hope for reversing the situation's worsening trend lies with the Security Council, which has remained paralyzed by a big power split between Russia and China on one side, who oppose punishing Bashar al-Assad's government for its brutality, and Western and Arab powers on the other, who favor sanctioning Syria.
"The Security Council simply cannot continue to say we are in disagreement, therefore let us wait for better times," Brahimi told reporters after the meeting, adding that he would continue to discuss Syria at a dinner tonight with the council's five major powers. "I think they have to grapple with this problem now."
Behind closed doors, Brahimi said the Syrian regime "is as repressive as ever, if not more," but that the armed opposition was also believed to have committed "equally atrocious crimes." He said international investigations are needed to get to the bottom of some of the country's worst human rights calamities, including this week's massacre of at least 65 people in Aleppo.
Brahimi said that he would continue to press the council's permanent members, including the United States and Russia, at a private dinner tonight to reach agreement on a common approach to Syria.
He said he would continue to press for his plan for the establishment of a transitional government with "full executive powers."
Brahimi told reporters that it was time to "lift the ambiguity" about the meaning of that phrase, though he did not say publicly exactly what that would mean for Assad. Behind closed doors, however, he told council diplomats that "it clearly means that Assad should have no role in the transition.... Assad's legitimacy has been irreparably damaged."
After the meeting, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that Washington "expressed strong support" for Brahimi's peace efforts and that it will continue to engage in talks with Brahimi and other key powers. But, she said, "I don't have any promises of any big breakthroughs."
Brahimi, meanwhile, confronted persistent rumors, published in the Arab press, that he was planning to resign from his job.
"I'm not a quitter, and the United Nations has no choice but to remain engaged with this problem" he told reporters. "The moment I feel that I am totally useless I will not stay one minute more."
"I didn't want this job," he admitted, suggesting that perhaps he taken it on "stupidly." "I felt a sense of duty," said Brahimi.
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U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to present the U.N. Security Council tomorrow with a darkly pessimistic assessment of peace prospects in Syria, where political repression and civil war have left more 60,000 people dead, according to U.N. estimates, and threatened to plunge the Middle East into a wider sectarian conflict, according to U.N. diplomats and officials.
Since his appointment last August, Brahimi has promoted a plan for a negotiated settlement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition that would lead to the establishment of a transitional government headed by opposition leaders and members of Assad's security establishment. Brahimi has invested his hopes and prestige on brokering a deal between the United States and Russia to compel the warring parties to accept peace.
But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this month rebuffed Brahimi's plan in a public address to Syrians, denouncing the armed oppositions as "terrorists" and "criminals" that needed to be confronted with arms. "They are the enemies of God, and they will go to hell," said Assad. The armed opposition has also made it clear it is not willing to negotiate as long as Assad is in power. And talks between the United States and Russia, meanwhile, are stalled over the fate of Assad.
Brahimi was "quite negative" about the prospect for a negotiated settlement in discussions with Security Council diplomats during the past week. He told them that he has no intention of outlining a specific new plan to break the current impasse, according to a council diplomat.
"The guy is stuck; he has no good news," added a senior U.N. colleague. "Everything he has tried to do is not working."
The U.N. assessment of the fighting has evolved since early December, when senior U.N. officials believed that Assad's regime was on the verge of collapse. Today, the balance of power has returned to a "military stalemate," according to a senior U.N. official.
The official said that Brahimi continues to believe that a negotiated political settlement presents the greatest hope of averting a chaotic collapse of Syria's institutions. And he will continue to promote it. But he "doesn't hide the fact" that the two sides are equally committed to fighting it out.
"The picture therefore is very grim," the official said.
Brahimi remains committed to pressing the U.N. Security Council's key powers, principally the United States and Russia, to coalesce behind a common position. Ironically, the official said, Brahimi believes that the two governments' assessments of the crisis are not that far apart, but it has been difficult to bridge the gap.
Moscow has expressed fresh doubts about Assad's prospects for survival, but it has shown little willingness to join the United States and other Western powers in ratcheting up pressure in the U.N. Security Council on Assad to step aside.
In an interview this weekend with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Assad may have made "a fatal mistake" by failing to move earlier to reach a political deal with the "moderate opposition" in Syria. "I think that with every day, with every week, with every month, the chances of him surviving are becoming less and less," said Medvedev.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- generally a more reliable barometer of the Russian policy -- insisted that Moscow, Damascus's longstanding military ally, was "never enchanted with this regime. And we never supported it," he told reporters. "And all of our actions, aimed at helping to fulfill the Geneva agreement to form the transitional body, only confirm that we want the situation to stabilize, and the creation of the conditions that Syrians can themselves decide their fate -- of their own people, their own state, their own leadership."
Western diplomats said that while they welcome Lavrov's remarks they say Russian officials have previously distanced themselves from their long-time ally only to come to his defense in the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has blocked three attempts by the West to threaten to punish Assad.
"We noticed the [Russian] comments and we're pleased to see them," said a council diplomat. "But it's not something we haven't seen before. If [President Vladimir] Putin had said them we'd be reacting quite differently."
"Our assessment at this point in time is pretty sobering: there has been no movement by Assad, nor by the Russians," added a Western diplomat. "They have not come forward with anything to support Brahimi."
In a sign of big power discord at the United Nations, the permanent five members of the Security Council will hold off on plans to meet Brahimi until after he has briefed the council. (A dinner has been scheduled for Tuesday night.) Diplomats said that the big five would likely have met before if there was any hope of forging a common position.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was not enough to leave it to the Syrians to resolve the crisis on their own. At a Paris conference of the Syrian National Coalition, Fabius said that the international community must bolster the opposition's moderate forces lest Islamic extremists take charge in Syria.
"We must give the Syrian opposition the means to support its people, urgently and tangibly," he said. "Because let's be clear: faced with the collapse of a state and a society, there is a risk of extremist groups gaining ground. We cannot let a revolt, which began as a peaceful and democratic protest, break down into a clash of militias. It is in the interests of the Syrian people and all of us."
Back at the U.N., there was growing despair about the chances of a peaceful settlement.
"We are extremely pessimistic of any chance of any political settlement," said another Security Council diplomat. "This is a conflict which will be resolved over the very long term. We know both sides have decided to fight to the death."
"Brahimi has good intentions but its been very clear from the beginning that his mission was impossible," the official said. "Not sure he will last very long in his current position, not because he will be kicked out but simply because he will draw the conclusion that it's a desperate situation."
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An independent U.N. human rights researcher this morning announced the opening of an investigation into the use of drone attacks and other targeted assassinations by the United States and other governments.
Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, told reporters in London this morning that the "exponential" rise in American drones strikes posed a "real challenge to the framework of international law," according to a statement issued by his office. Emmerson said there was a need to develop a legal framework to regulate the use of drones, and ensure "accountability" for their misuse.
"The plain fact is that this technology is here to stay," he said. "It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirement of international law.
The decision to open a drone investigation drew praise from critics of America's drone policies. "We welcome this investigation in the hopes that global pressure will bring the U.S. back into line with international law requirements that strictly limit the use of lethal force," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. "To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the U.S. government's ever-expanding targeted killing program."
The Obama administration has defended its use of drones as a more humane alternative to military combat. John Brennan, the White House advisor on counterterrorism and the president's new nominee to lead the CIA, defended the U.S. program as "ethical and just," saying that the targeted nature of the strikes was more humane than traditional military strikes, lessening the prospects that civilians are killed.
Emmerson challenged what he characterized as Brennan's contention that the United States and its allies are engaged in a global war against a stateless enemy which requires the prosecution of war across international borders. Emmerson said that "central objective" of his inquiry is to "look at evidence that drone strikes and other forms of remote targeted killings have caused disproportionate civilian casualties in some instances, and to make recommendations concerning the duty of states to conduct throughout independent and impartial investigations into such allegations, with a view to securing accountability..."
Emmerson said that he has assembled a team of international lawyers and experts, including British lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice and New York University professor Sarah Knuckey, to help identify cases in which targeted killings may have resulted in civilian casualties. He said they would focus on 25 case studies in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, to see whether there is a case worthy of prosecution. He said he would present his findings in October.
Emmerson is an independent U.N. rights expert, and his investigation is not sanctioned by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon or the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay. But his association with the United Nations is likely to carry greater political weight than those of independent administration critics.
Emmerson first announced plans to look into the American drone program in October, on the eve of U.S. presidential elections, citing frustration with both candidates' positions on drones."The Obama administration continues to formally adopt the position that it will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the drone program," he said at the time. "In reality, the administration is holding its finger in the dam of public accountability," he said according to a prepared copy of the speech.
Emmerson said today that the investigation emerged as the result of a request last June from China, Pakistan, and Russia, to investigate the use of drones in counterterrorism operations.
"The inquiry that I am launching today is a direct response to the requests made to me by states at the human rights council last June, as well as to the increasing international concern surrounding the issue of remote targeted killing through the use of UAV's [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles]," he said. "The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law."
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Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, quietly floated the idea of organizing a U.N. peacekeeping force to help stabilize Mali after France puts down the Islamist insurgency there.
Rice made the remarks in a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday evening, though she noted that the Obama administration had not yet officially decided to back a force of blue helmets. But she said that the existing plan to send an African-led force to the country to train the Malian army to retake control of northern Mali from the Islamists had been overtaken by the French intervention.
Rice said that the original U.N. plan -- which envisioned the Malian army as the "tip of the spear" in a military offensive against the Islamists -- is no longer viable, according to an official present at the meeting. She said the mission would likely shift from a combat mission to a stabilization mission, requiring a long-term strategy to hold territory and build up local institutions. French combat forces are unlikely to remain in Mali to do that job. "We need to be open to a blue-helmeted operation," she said, according to another official at the meeting.
The French action has sent U.N. diplomats and military planners back to drawing board to try to fashion a long-term security strategy for Mali. Several African countries, including Benin, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, and Togo, that were planning to train the Malians to fight are now mustering forces to support the French combat operation.
The African forces lack many of the basic necessities, however, including fuel and transport. The Nigerian force commander of the African troops had to borrow a vehicle from the Nigerian embassy in Bamako, according to a U.N. official . A contingent from Togo arrived in Bamako with only enough rations to last about three days, the official said.
At a Jan. 19 summit, leaders of a West African coalition of states called for the urgent deployment of African forces and urged the United Nations to "immediately furnish the logistical support" for the African countries. The United Nations agreed to send a senior military advisor to Bamako to help coordinate the African's military planning, but it stopped short of supplying logistical support to the African forces on the grounds that it would compromise the U.N.'s impartiality.
"The United Nations must consider with the utmost care the issue of supporting offensive military operations in the light of the overall global mandate of the Organization," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a letter to the Security Council this week. "I am obliged to bring to the attention of the Security Council the assessment of the Secretariat that, if the United Nations were to provide logistics support to military forces engaged in an offensive operation, it would place civilian United Nations personnel at grave risk, and undermine their ability to carry out their current tasks in the region."
U.N. officials say they expect Ban to get an earful from African leaders over his refusal to supply forces. African leaders are meeting at an AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Sunday and Monday. These officials have noted that the U.N. provided military support to African-led military operations in Somalia, and that U.N. peacekeepers have backed up offensive military operations by the Congolese government. Herve Ladsous, a former French official who serves as the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, favors more active U.N. support for the Africans.
"The house is still divided; some feel we need to help the Africans," said one U.N. official. "We already do it in Somalia; how do you explain to the Africans why you can't do it in Mali?"
The debate over the future of Mali is playing out just as France has declared an initial victory in their effort to drive back the Islamist offensive, which had seen fighters move south from their northern stronghold and capturing the town of Konna on Jan. 10. The insurgents put up a far tougher fight than the French had initially anticipated, extending their control over southern towns of Diabaly and Douentza.
"This operation has been a success so far," said France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud. "Its primary goal has been met: the terrorist offensive against the south has been stopped thanks to the joint action of the Malian and French forces. The towns of Diabaly, Konna, and Douentza have been retaken by the Malian forces, with French support."
But senior U.N. diplomats believe that the fight has only begun, and that armed insurgents have simply beat a tactical retreat, and are likely to begin using traditional guerrilla tactics, launching targeted raids on the allied forces remaining behind to hold towns recently abandoned by the rebels. Despite public claims that the Malian army has been engaged in the fighting, some Western diplomats have acknowledged that the Malian army had all but collapsed into total disarray, leaving it to France to do the fighting. With the first phase of the French counteroffensive concluded, France will now trying to train the Malians and other African forces to hold the towns they have captured.
"It appears that in the western area, armed elements have moved closer to the Mauritanian border," Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, told the Security Council on Tuesday. "The risk of infiltration and further attacks by these groups on southern towns, including Bamako, remains high."
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sounded a gloomy note on the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria, telling reporters today at Turtle Bay that U.N.-backed efforts to curtail the violence were proving elusive.
Ban's grim assessment comes as U.N.-Arab League Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi is in New York to press the U.N. Security Council to ratchet up political pressure on the warring parties to put down their weapons. But there are few signs that the big power divisions that have paralyzed the U.N. Security Council over the past two years have been overcome.
"Brahimi continues his diplomatic efforts. We met yesterday, and reviewed the latest state of play," Ban said. "Our shared assessment is that we are still a long way from getting the Syrians together."
"The situation is very dire, very difficult," he added. "We do not see much prospect of a resolution at this time."
It's no wonder.
In a Jan. 6 address to the Syrian people, President Bashar al-Assad effectively rejected the former Algerian diplomat's plan for a political transition.
Brahimi's Plan B -- a diplomatic effort to get United States and Russian agreement on a plan that would pressure the Syrian leader to step aside -- has gone nowhere. Senior U.N.-based diplomats say that those talks have achieved only the most incremental progress, and that while some Russian diplomats appear open to a deal, their political masters in Moscow have balked at any pact that would undercut Assad.
Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that his government will accept no plan for a transitional government in Syria that requires Assad step down. Last week, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, drove home that point at a Security Council luncheon hosted by Ban.
The Russian stance has dealt a blow to Brahimi's efforts to increase pressure on Assad to make way for a transitional government which would preserve a role for Syria's security institutions, but require him to step aside.
U.N. officials say that Brahimi recognizes that a Russian and American pact may not be enough to get the Syrian government and the rebels to stop fighting right away.
But the point of Brahimi's diplomatic strategy, said one U.N. official, is to "start changing the dynamics at play" by putting in place a diplomatic process that can eventually persuade the warring parties and their allies that there is a peaceful alternative to civil war.
The U.N. hopes, according to the U.N. official, that if the United States and Russia do converge on an agreed strategy, the U.N. Security Council will rally behind them, opening the door to the possibility of a legally binding Security Council resolution that would seek to compel the warring factions to stop fighting through the imposition of an arms embargo and other coercive measures.
"A U.S.-Russian agreement would not be a magic bullet. But it could very well lead to some possibilities that are currently unavailable because of the utter lack of unity in the international community," said the official. The armed opposition, meanwhile, "might have more faith in a political approach" if it is backed by a Security Council resolution "that makes Bashar's inevitable departure seem more real." The Syrian rebels have made clear that they will not accept any political transition that keeps Assad in place.
But some senior U.N.-based diplomats fear that Brahimi has run out of workable options. "It was a mistake of Brahimi to think we are in the Cold War and the Americans and the Russians can decide," said one senior U.N.-based diplomat . "Even if they agree I don't see how and why the fighters who have been fighting for 18 months or two years will accept the diktat of the United States and Russia."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on Global Cooperation, said "Brahimi's calculation is that the regional players [who are arming the opposition] are not likely to shift their positions unless they see some sort of signal from the United States and Russia. As long as Russia and the United States are far apart there is no incentive for anyone in the region to rethink their stances. So that's the case for pushing ahead with the Russian track."
Gowan sees little reason to believe Moscow will "do anything to initiate the fall of Assad," saying that Russia is "just stringing everyone along as it has been stringing everyone along for a year." But he said he believes that Brahimi is keen to keep the talks going to pave the way for cooperation between Moscow and Washington in the event that Assad does fall. "This is creating some sort of basis for Russia and the United States to agree on a common response when Assad goes," he said.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is set to appoint a top former Qatari diplomat as his high representative of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, reinforcing the oil sheikdom's standing as a rising diplomatic powerhouse.
Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, a former Qatari envoy to the United Nations who served as U.N. General Assembly president last year, will replace Jorge Sampaio, a former Portuguese president who currently heads the organization.
The decision places a trusted Western ally at the head of an organization that aims to bridge the cultural gap between the West and the Islamic world.
The New York-based agency was established at the initiative of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who proposed the creation of a high-level panel of eminent leaders to promote cooperation in the Christian and Muslim world. The Spanish proposal came several months after more than 192 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Madrid in March 2004. Turkey later signed on as a co-sponsor of the initiative.
The high-level group includes the Qatari emir's influential second wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, the former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and U.S. Rabbi Arthur Schneier.
Qatar is an intriguing pick.
Qatar's emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Sheika Mozah have sought to transform the emirate into the intellectual and cultural capital of the Middle East, sponsoring outposts for major Western universities, including Cornell and Georgetown, and think tanks like Brookings Doha Center.
Earlier this month, Qatar's satellite television station, Al Jazeera, purchased the Current TV cable channel, granting the government-funded news organization access to tens of millions of American households. So, in a sense, Qatar has already been at the forefront of bridging the cultural gap between the Islamic world and the West.
But the role of the Sunni monarchy within the Islamic world has been controversial, particularly in the Middle East, where Doha has been a protagonist in the emerging schism between the region's Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The Gulf sheikdom has been a highly controversial actor in the region since the Arab Spring, funneling cash and weapons to revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi and insurgents in Syria, where Qatar backs the downfall of Bashar al-Assad and the ruling Alawite minority, which has close ties to Iran's Shiite government. During his tenure as General Assembly president, Nasser organized several sessions to condemn Syria's crackdown on protesters in Syria.
Qatar has contributed large sums of money to Sunni Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which the United States government considers a terrorist organization.
Despite its regional ambitions, Qatar has sought to cultivate a reputation as an intermediary between the Middle East and the West. It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into peace efforts from Darfur to Lebanon, and it supports American military aims.
The United States view the Qatari monarchy, which hosts the largest U.S. military air base in the region, as a key ally in its military campaign in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq. While Washington has privately expressed unease about Qatar's relations with Iran (with which it shares an enormous natural gas field), it believes that Qatar shares Washington's desire to contain Iran's influence in the region.
"I see this appointment playing perfectly into the way the Qataris try to market themselves diplomatically; they can use this as part of their global soft power projection and generate international good will," said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. "With all due respect to the worthiness of this [Alliance of Civilizations] project -- and I think it is worthy," he added. "This is not real diplomacy; this is public relations."
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France's President Francois Hollande today announced plans to increase the number of French troops in Mali, marking an escalation in France's intervention in its former colony.
Despite the socialist president's efforts to mark a break with a history of French meddling in Africa's affairs, Paris finds itself back in a familiar role in Africa.
Nearly two years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy led international campaign to intervene in Libya to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi. He also ordered French forces to help U.N. peacekeepers take down Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivoirian leader who refused to accept step down after losing his presidential election.
So, was France's intervention in Mali a return to its past or is it something different? "I don't think this is more of the same; I think this is part of an emerging model of intervention where counterterrorism is the core," said Bruce Jones, director of NYU's Center on Global Cooperation. He said the Mali operation bears more similarity with Somalia -- where U.S. forces target suspected terrorists while African troops provide security -- than it does with historical efforts to intervene to shore up African leaders.
Whatever the similarities, France's role in Africa was supposed to look different from this under Hollande.
In a recent visit to the continent, the French leader assured African audiences that the era of Franceafrique, a period marked by frequent French military intervention on behalf of Africa's post colonial autocrats, was done with.
"I didn't come to Africa to impose my way, or deliver a lesson on morality," Hollande told Senegal's parliament in October. "The era of Franceafrique is over. There is now a France and there is an Africa. And there is a partnership between France and Africa, based on relationships that are founded on respect," he added during the visit.
But others recalled that Sarkozy had initially vowed to end the era of Franceafrique, only to find himself responding to the French urge to act in Libya and Ivory Coast. That urge reflects the enduring influence of Africa’s traditional interventionists in French politics, and in the case of Mali, the fact that 6,000 French nationals live in Mali, most of them in Bamako.
“If we go back to when Sarkozy came into office and talked about the end of Franceafrique and surrounded himself with a new generation of French Africa advisors those guys lost out and within two years the old guard reasserted itself,” said Todd Moss, an expert on West Africa at the Center for Global Development. “I’m sure the old French guard is very, very powerful if they were able to maintain their influence under Sarkozy. I wouldn’t’ be surprised if it is strong under Hollande.”
But other diplomats say France’s calculation was simpler, noting that one of the Islamist factions fighting in Mali, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, already holds eight French hostages captured in Mali and neighboring states.
“You can’t neglect the fact that the French have a large population in Bamako,” said one European diplomat. “The Islamists were moving towards those people, raising the threat that hundreds more could have been taken hostage. I’m sure the French government felt it had a responsibility to them.”
Still, Mali was supposed to be a model of that new relationship.
When separatist Tuareg fighters, backed by armed Islamist groups linked to al Qaeda, seized control of northern Mali last year, France vowed to keep its expeditionary forces in their barracks. They turned to regional leaders, backed by the United Nations, to help Mali's troubled army confront the Islamists.
Last month, France championed a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a European-backed, African-led force to train the Malian army and help it reconquer its northern territories. But the effort has been complicated by a number of factors, not least of which is the fact that Mali's army came to power by staging a military coup against the country's elected leader.
The planned force was plagued by delays, making it unlikely that it would even arrive in Mali until September or October, providing the rebels with a window of opportunity to strike. Last week, they seized it, and began marching towards the south, capturing the town of Konna, and threatening the strategic town of Mopti. Mali's U.S.-trained military collapsed.
France's U.N. envoy Gerard Araud on Monday told reporters outside the U.N. Security Council that France had reluctantly entered Mali.
"Our assessment was that they were totally able to take Bamako," he said. "So, we decided that what was at stake was the existence of the state of Mali and beyond Mali was the stability of all West Africa."
While France's military action has its critics inside France and beyond (former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin denounced it), the strike has drawn widespread diplomatic, if not military, support.
The Group of 8 political directors today issued a statement welcoming the French military action. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's U.N. envoy and a vocal critic of the Western interventions in Libya, said Monday that France's intervention -- which followed a request for assistance from the Malian government -- was perfectly legal and that its operation enjoyed unanimous support in the 15-nation Security Council.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who had earlier cautioned that military intervention in Mali should be considered a last resort, backed the French move. The reaction from within the U.N. ranks could best be described as "quiet applause," said one senior U.N. official. "So many of us are so relieved, even though we don't know how this will end."
Jones said that the U.N.'s reticence about military action was driven primarily by concerns about "the limitations of their own capacity" to play a supporting role in an African-led war against Islamists in Mali. "I don't think the U.N. had any difficulty with having someone deal with al Qaeda in the Maghreb. They just didn't want to be in a position of doing it themselves. They were worried about taking on more than they could chew."
But having taken charge, France will be confronted with a new challenge: ensuring that its allies in the Malian army don't follow up any military victories by launching a revenge campaign against its enemies.
"There is no doubt that the human rights situation in Mali before the intervention was already catastrophic, with civilian populations suffering abuses at the hands of all the parties to the conflicts, whether Islamist groups, separatist rebels, as well as the Malian army itself," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "But the risks and human rights challenges that come with military intervention are many. It's important that neither the French nor [African peacekeepers] empower "the Malian army] to commit more."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.