Mali, Historical Precedents and France

Giles Longley-Cook looks at the situation in Mali and French involvement in the region.

Once again a rich Western power is involving itself militarily in the affairs of a third world nation, supplying aid and armed force to the side it deems friendly to its national interests. Time for protests, calls of corruption, anger, condemnation…

Oh wait; it’s not America intervening. OK cancel all that. No, the gung-ho power on this occasion is France. ‘What?’ you ask ‘The country we praised for not bowing to American pressure and invading Iraq with us?’

French Supporter

Yes France, not a country we consider too much militarily these days, has now involved itself, with the UK in close pursuit, in the military conflict in Mali. While not in large numbers, its troops are occupying frontline positions in the battle to eradicate Islamist rebels in the North.

With such similarities to the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan (the fight against Islamism, defence of dodgy allies, technological advantages and history of interference with the countries involved) it’s hard to see why one should be accepted as a necessary intervention while the others continue to attract revulsion as imperialist ventures. A certain level of snobbery can be detected in the opinions given of either. Europe, the old money, likes its international relations to remain small-scale, tasteful, unhindered by any vulgar overt displays of action or principle. America on the other hand is the Nouveau Riche power; brash, flashy, confidant, in-your-face. And like the quiet struggle between any elite and rising group, European disdain for the uncouth ways of our transatlantic cousins comes with a barely veiled hint of jealousy and fear.

The truth is that whatever the motivations behind and the methods used in American foreign policy, and boy can they be terrible in both, any imperialism or self-interest has come in varying degrees. If you want a record of foreign policy that bears an almost unbroken stream of both those two motivations, look no further than that of post ww2 France. Obvious early examples include the terror campaigns waged in their colonies in Algeria and Indochina in the 50’s, campaigns of a similar nature to the ones this country was waging simultaneously in our own holdings. Those wars were well-publicised and assignable to a forgotten/reviled colonial age. But with overt intervention off the table a new era has arisen in ex-French West Africa, one of covert financing, deals, non-committal support and, if putting troops on the ground is necessary, plausible deniability.

Earlier examples of such behaviour, and the worst, include the ‘friendly and fraternal’ cooperation with Jean-Bedel Bokassa, ruthless dictator of the Central African Republic, first putting him in power with a bloody coup, then propping up his vile regime, aiding his overthrow once he’d become too much of an embarrassment and finally giving him sanctuary on the French Riviera, avoiding cannibalism charges alongside other spat out despots. Since then the butcher’s bill has included French military and financial aid used to overthrow the progressive Sankara regime in Burkina Faso, reducing the nation to backward servitude, full on involvement in conflicts in Ivory Coast and Chad, and, while the rest of the world remained shamefully silent, involvement in the Rwandan genocide to save Europeans and sabotage the anti-genocide rebels.

Very rarely has the UN ever been consulted over these decisions and bare-faced self-interest, financial and political, from national levels to the personal business of presidents, has commonly been the deciding factor behind them. The recent Mali intervention is almost unique in that it is against evil totalitarian forces, but then so was the invasion of Afghanistan. The fact that one is seen as a crime and the other as reasonable has yet to be rectified.

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What do Russian attack helicopters say about Syrian strategy?

The cargo ship supposedly transporting attack helicopters to Syria has returned to Russia.Russian-made attack helicopter

MV Alaed had no option but to turn back after its insurance was withdrawn by The Standard Club in London.

The withdrawal was made as the ship reached 50 miles off Scotland’s north coast, preventing it from sailing until it could secure new cover.

Foreign Secretary William Hague discouraged anyone from attempting to provide arms to the Syrian government during the civil crisis.

“We’ve had discussions with Russia about that specifically and I’m pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back apparently towards Russia.”

Riad al Assad, commander of the Free Syrian Army, tweeted mockingly that Russia is acting like the Soviet Union during the cold war: “Breaking news #Syria Russian cargo vessel carrying arms and attack helicopters has started its journey back to the USSR”.

The attack helicopters being mentioned could be a variant of the Mil Mi-35, the export version of the Mi-24. The Brazilian air force has recently bought twelve Mi-35’s as part of its modernisation programme.

The Brazilian government uses the Mi-35 for a number of roles; air policing, border security and counter-narcotics operations.

If it is true that the Syrian government are trying to get hold of Attack Helicopters it reveals a lot about how they view the conflict panning out over the coming weeks.

One Mi-35 costs roughly $25 million (£15.9 million). So the procurement of several of these helicopters is no small investment by the Syrian government. It suggests that the current strategy being used is not entirely effective and that the Free Syrian army are using insurgent tactics that have been successful in other conflicts. From this, it could be inferred that the Syrian government is preparing for a protracted war.

However, questions are being asked of whether Assad’s forces can maintain pressure on the rebels when their resources are being restricted by embargo. If the attack helicopters had arrived, it would have significantly increased the Syrian Arab Army’s capacity to conduct successful counter-insurgency operations, enabling it to root out rebels embedded deep within cities and providing aggressive cover to its own authorities on the ground. The psychological edge alone could have been decisive.

The Attack Helicopter

The attack helicopter has demonstrated its suitability to counter-insurgency and urban warfare across the world. In Libya the British use of the Apache provided significantly enhanced aerial precision compared to fighter jets. Its manoeuvrability means it can pursue units trying to intermingle with the civilian population.

The Russians have used the attack helicopter to some effect in their conflict with Chechen insurgents. The Karmov KA50 accompanied by an Mi-24 (the domestic model of the Mi-35) destroyed a warehouse full of ammunition belonging to Chechen insurgents. Additionally, in the forest covered mountain area to the south of the village of Tsentoroj, KA-50s were involved in the discovery and destruction of a fortified camp of insurgents.

The Turkish government has also realised the importance of the attack helicopter and have produced their own, designated the T129 (and could be leveraged in the ongoing tensions with the bordering Kurdish population.)

Although these are different conflicts in different environments there are similarities in the tactics that insurgents use. From the Vietcong, to Brazil (where factions of Hezbollah have been known to operate shoulder to shoulder with FARC insurgents), to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, similarities can be drawn.

One of the key tactical and strategic elements outlined by the Mao Zedong, the forefather of modern guerrilla warfare is that “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Considering that Assad does have a strong support base despite also having a strong opposition, differentiating friend from foe could prove to be a huge challenge for Syrian commanders, should rebels seek to exploit their ability to merge into the crowd.

Unfortunately for the Syrian government, if it has been unable to secure helicopter support for both combat and urban surveillance, its counter strategy may already be sporting a large hole.

Defence IQ will publish a full report within the next few days on Attack Helicopter assets worldwide, which will be found on the International Close Air Support download centre.

What was in the crate?

The MI-35

  • The helicopter has six suspension weapon units on the wingtips.
  • It is equipped with a YakB four-barrelled, 12.7mm, built-in, flexibly mounted machine gun, which has a firing rate of 4,000-4,500 rounds a minute
  • It can also carry the longer-range Ataka anti-tank missile system with a maximum range of 8km.
  • It can also be armed with rockets and grenade launchers.
  • There is the option of fitting it with countermeasures that include infrared jammer, radar warner and flare dispensers.
  • Maximum payload 2,400KG
  • Air speed, km/h: maximum 320, cruising 280
  • Range, km 450
  • Powerplant 2 x TV3-117VMA turboshafts
  • Crew: 2

Stats and image courtesy of http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/row/mi-24.htm.