Mali's neighbors are ready to send 3,300 soldiers to reclaim the north from armed Islamists. But the UN is delaying adopting a resolution to authorise such an intervention, fearing it could backfire.
For almost half a year, northern Mali has been under the control of Islamist groups. They seized power after a military coup and a Tuareg drive for independence had already destabilized the country.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the self-proclaimed Defenders of the Faith (Ansar Dine) have established a regime of terror. They amputate the hands of alleged thieves, stone to death people accused of adultery and recruit child soldiers in their militant wings.
The town of Gao in the northeast is experiencing such ruthless authority. During a telephone conversation with DW, a resident of Gao who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke of people's desperation. "We are counting on everyone who wants to help us. If the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) can help get rid of these people, then that's a good thing," he said.
ECOWAS has offered to deploy around 3,300 soldiers in Mali.
UN's waiting game
The Malian army has for a long time not been in a position to retake the north. After months of discussion, Bamako finally accepted ECOWAS's offer.
Malian Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra on Wednesday (26.09.2012) officially called for a resolution by the UN Security Council. He made his call at a UN special summit on the Sahel region in New York. Such a resolution would assure ECOWAS of a strong commitment by the UN's most powerful organ.
But Diarra is still waiting. A UN Security Council resolution is not foreseeable in the near future. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said that military intervention should be considered with extreme caution.
More than 400,000 people have fled northern Mali to the south or to neighboring countries. "Any (military) action may have serious consequences on the humanitarian situation and trigger a larger refugee influx," the UN chief warned.
Lords of war
The Islamist groups in the north have close ties with the regional umbrella organization, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They also have good links with local tribal leaders, says Wolfram Lacher, an expert on the Sahel region at the Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "This is not only about international terrorists, there are also strong local interest groups involved," Lacher told DW in an interview. "To wage war against them could have serious consequences for ECOWAS," he added.
Local tribal leaders benefit from Mali's instability. Some of them are involved in the drug and weapons smuggling rackets flourishing between Mali and northern Africa. Lacher therefore doesn't believe a possible military engagement by ECOWAS in northern Mali can be successful. "In particular, because ECOWAS does not include the two most influential countries bordering northern Mali, namely Algeria and Mauritania."
Aid from Europe
If, despite all the reservations, a UN resolution on Mali is adopted, then ECOWAS troops will most probably have to rely on the West for help. French President François Holland, said in New York that France would offer financial and technical support to an ECOWAS military intervention in Mali.
The EU has also hinted that it would be willing to help.