Is Hollande discovering it IS easier to get in than out?

France’s beleaguered President Francois Hollande has had some good news.

He may have fallen out of the public’s affection faster than any previous French leader, but last Wednesday the United Nations gave Mr Hollande UNICEF’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny Prize for his contribution to peace and stability.

The award is recognition for France’s intervention in Mali earlier this year which staved off the advance of Islamist rebels, some with alleged links to al Qaeda, who threatened a take-over of the country.

Meanwhile in Mali – as the cliché goes – at the same time as the President was being honoured by UNICEF in Paris, news came that the Malian army had clashed with rebels in the north of country for the first time since the French entered the conflict back in January.

Mali may no longer feature much in the papers or on the news, but that doesn’t mean the conflict is over and the situation there is sorted out.  It also goes to illustrate what western countries must have learned about military intervention since the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s – it is much easier to get in than it is to get out – to this day there are thousands of European troops in Kosovo and Bosnia.

To his credit, Mr Hollande seemed to recognise this could be a problem again in Mali quite quickly. When first announcing he was sending troops, he emphasised the emergency nature of the intervention with the Malian army in rapid retreat and a rebel victory looking imminent. He said France would stay until African troops and the UN could get organised to support Mali’s government, but within days French officials were saying the troops would stay “as long as necessary”.

In the event, the arrival of the French – and troops from neighbouring Chad – changed the course of the conflict. The rebels were pushed back quickly and the main towns in the sparsely populated north of the country were retaken, as, by and large, the rebels chose not to stand and fight and returned to insurgent tactics of ambush and bombings.

But in order to bring as quick an end to the intervention as possible, the French also attempted to split the rebels – which were made up of an alliance of various fractious groups. Some were Islamist, such as Ansar Dine, and some secular nationalists, such as the Natonal Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA,  fighting for more autonomy or independence for the Arab Tuareg people of northern Mali from the black African majority of the south.

Paris had some success in this strategy. As French troops advanced towards a key northern town called Kidal at the end of January, MNLA forces there turned on their Islamist allies and drove them out of the town. In exchange, it seems, the French promised the MNLA could run the town and the Malian army would not return.

At the time, the move helped accelerate the French advance, but it may have complicated the longer term aim of stabilising Mali and ensuring the withdrawal of all French troops.

Although the UN has agreed to send a new stabilisation mission to Mali, called MINUSMA, backed by a military force from neighbouring countries such as Nigeria and Chad, France still has about 2,000 troops there – half the number they had at the height of the fighting, but still a considerable deployment .

The recent clashes between the Malian army and the MNLA were near Kidal, which is still held by the rebel group. The stabilisation plan for Mali involves holding elections next month and the MNLA says it will not return the town to Malian government control before those elections. The army seems to be intent of taking it back before then.

So what will the French do?

The original intervention was justified on political and humanitarian grounds – to save Mali from collapse and the people from human rights abuses by the Islamist fighters. But six months on, the Malian army still seems incapable of defeating the rebels on its own, and human rights groups accuse government troops themselves of abusing civilians in the areas where it has managed to re-establish control.

So far Paris has not said much about the new outbreak of fighting, but if it escalates, it is likely the French will have to delay the withdrawal of the troops still in Mali.

So despite his awareness of the risks of getting sucked into a long term involvement, President Hollande, could still struggle to find the way out of his first foreign intervention.

Is the Eurozone crisis a threat to democracy?

Here’s a piece I’ve done for Yale Global magazine on democracy under strain in Europe.

Politicians in power since the 2008 financial collapse, regardless of their political stripes, find themselves in peril. Analysis of the recent French and Greek elections followed three lines of thought: voters soundly rejecting strict austerity measures, blaming incumbents, and abandoning mainstream political parties for more extremist leadership, both right and left. The three interpretations are linked.  Read more

Armenians in Turkey: an unextinguished light

To find out how world peace was coming along I rose early this morning (not easy after a New Year’s Eve engaged in one of the marathon rakı and cards sessions of which middle-aged Turks are so fond) to attend mass at the local Armenian church.

That it is possible to write such a sentence is a small miracle. A century ago, the port town of Iskenderun in southern Turkey had a thriving population of Armenians. Today there are just one hundred left – ten of them joined me, bleary-eyed, at mass. Their church, founded in the late nineteenth century, reopened in 2011 having been closed for decades due to the absence of a priest. It owes its resurrection to an earnest young member of the community who, fearful that without a focal point the old traditions would die out, decided to fill the gap, and went to Lebanon and Jerusalem to be trained as a priest. He now ministers to the small church of Iskenderun and the even smaller chapel of a nearby village, the last Armenian settlement in Turkey.

During a break in the three hour-long service, the elderly man sitting next to me introduces himself and asks my business. Within a minute or two, unprompted, he remarks that ‘this country has done terrible things to Christians.’ In 1916, he tells me, his parents had been forced to flee to Iskenderun from the interior. Turkish soldiers were killing Armenians in the surrounding region, and in anticipation of the troops’ arrival the people of his village had begun to join in. This was the beginning of a series of events described by Armenians and most of the world as genocide and by Turks, unconvincingly, as war. At least a million people are thought to have died in the ensuing months. Iskenderun itself was not immune to the killings, the old man says, but because it was a French protectorate at the time it provided a safer haven than much of the rest of the country.

Today the town continues to be a welcoming home to its small Armenian population. The priest tells me that he and his congregants have no problems with their fellow townspeople, nearly all of whom are Turks, and that Iskenderun is a fine place for Armenians to live. In recent months the oafish political posturing of Sarkozy has dominated the Armenia-Turkey debate, but as we enter what is likely to be a turbulent new year the resilience and endurance of Iskenderun’s Armenian community tells a more positive, constructive story. A Happy New Year to all.

 

Kosovo re-assessed?

I’ve written on the BBC Editors site about whether the Kosovo intervention is being reassessed in the light of allegations against Prime Minister Thaci

Kosovo has been back on the front pages in recent weeks with lurid allegations against its Prime Minister and dominant politician, Hashim Thaci, accusing him of involvement in organised crime and even harvesting human organs for sale for profit.  Mr Thaci has denied the allegations. 

Mr Thaci has also been in the news as his party was accused of vote rigging in last month’s parliamentary elections which were the first organised by the Kosovo government. This week, the vote had to be rerun in some of Mr Thaci’s strongholds and a new government should be formed in the next few weeks. 

Why is this interesting to people who don’t follow affairs in south east Europe closely? Read More

Sarkozy threat to pull France out of Euro?

Seems Nicolas Sarkozy, Global Dashboard’s favourite European leader, was in typically understated form during the recent Eurozone crisis summit:

Sarkozy demanded “a compromise from everyone to support Greece … or France would reconsider its position in the euro,” according to one source cited by El País.

“Sarkozy went as far as banging his fist on the table and threatening to leave the euro,” said one unnamed Socialist leader who was at the meeting with Zapatero. “That obliged Angela Merkel to bend and reach an agreement.”

Foreign Office leads EU coup

It’s taken as a given here in the UK that Brits wield little influence in Europe. But apparently – not. According to the Guardian, an FCO-led coup is under way:

Germany is planning to stop what it sees as a British campaign to dominate European foreign policy-making under Lady Catherine Ashton, the Guardian can disclose.

Amid growing criticism across the EU of the performance of Baroness Ashton of Upholland, the EU’s new high representative for foreign and security policy, Berlin and Paris are alarmed at the prominence of British officials in the new EU diplomatic service being formed under Ashton.

A confidential German foreign ministry document analysing the creation of the EU’s new diplomatic service, seen by the Guardian, has concluded that Britain has grabbed an “excessive” and “over-proportionate” role…

The French contend that the inexperienced Ashton is being schooled in policy-making by the Foreign Office. Diplomats and officials in Brussels also see Britain’s hand in one of Ashton’s first appointments, made last week. She named Vygaudas Ušackas, a former Lithuanian foreign minister and ambassador in London, as the EU’s special envoy to Afghanistan. He was widely seen as the UK’s favoured contender after Britain withdrew its own candidate because it secured the post of Nato envoy in Kabul.

The Germans are also increasingly unhappy at what they see as the erosion of their influence and being cut out of decision-taking.

Climate – Europe’s many voices

Today, Ban-Ki Moon, worried by fading prospects for a climate deal at Copenhagen, will try and knock heads (of state) together at his Summit on Climate Change. Here’s the list of speakers:

H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations
Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
H.E. Mr. Barack Obama, President of the United States of America
H.E. Mr. Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Republic of Maldives
H.E. Mr. Hu Jintao, President of the Peoples Republic of China
H.E. Mr. Yukio Hatoyama, Prime Minister of Japan
H.E. Mr. Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda
H.E. Mr. Fredrik Reinfeldt, Prime Minister of Sweden
H.E. Mr. Óscar Arias Sánchez, President of Costa Rica
H.E. Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France
Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, Founder, Green Belt Movement, Kenya (Civil Society)
Ms. Yugratna Srivastava, Asia-Pacific UNEP/TUNZA Junior-Board representative, India, age 13 (Youth)
H.E. Mr. Tillman Joseph Thomas, Prime Minister of Grenada
H.E. Mr. Ahmad Babiker Nahar , Minister of Environment and Urban Development of Sudan
H.E. Mr. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

It’s a pretty standard list – major powers (check), regional balance (check), soon-to-be-submerged-island-state (check), boffin (check), civil society (check), token youth (check). But then you hit the European problem. The Swedes hold the Presidency and thus speak for the EU. Rasmussen is there because he’s going to shoulder a lot of the blame if Copenhagen fails to deliver. But how on earth has Nicolas Sarkozy managed to clamber onto the platform?

It beggars belief that, just when Europeans most need to speak with a single voice, the French president is – once again – giving his ego free rein. Or have I missed something?