Tag Archives: intervention

An interesting comparison

TW: colonialism, military intervention in Mali

I have to admit, a lot of the time, I have to carefully consider whether I should keep following the Johannesburg Times on twitter, because of how much of what they write about and post there are interesting-but-not-very-important factoids like this. But often, their coverage for all its faults is the most detailed examination of what’s happening in South Africa specifically and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa generally that’s easily accessible and understandable to non-Africans like me. With a good amount of frequency, the Times will share a couple of articles that even if not particularly revolutionary themselves help put together an image of what’s happening in that part of the world.


(On the left, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore while raising funds in Brussels, Belgium, from various EU member states and EU international bodies, from here.)

Sometimes that’s pretty infuriating, however. Take, for instance, this article on South African economic development and this one on aid to the Malian state. In South Africa at the moment, disparate political groups with different perspectives on what state policies should be are in the process of negotiating at length how their society can improve its lot, which is quite the tall order after centuries of colonial occupation. It’s likely that few people in the United States will hear about these debates, and the few like you and me who have are unlikely to have much detail to them – but part of that is because of the internal nature of what South Africans are debating. I don’t know that the country can be declared decolonized (and I do know that I shouldn’t be the one to do that in any case), but it seems that they’re moving in a positive direction in terms of popular negotiation being central to creating economic policies.

The situation in Mali seems to stand in stark contrast to that. In the wake of what could be seen as another chapter in an on-going and multidimensional internal conflict, the power center that appealed to outside assistance is now working to receive aid from individuals and organizations largely affiliated with the military forces that intervened on its behalf. Perhaps France specifically should provide the territories under the governance of the state of Mali with restitution for colonial rule, but it’s important to note that that’s not what’s happening now. What’s happening now, is that the government of Mali has successfully pitched to the EU Humanitarian Aid Commission and other such bodies the idea that the intervention on the basis of security will be for naught without basic economic stability in the region. The colonial framework that the intervention reinforced is being explicitly expanded through this request for aid.

Unlike South Africa, the government of Mali seems to have decided to farm out its economic insecurities, but at the cost of autonomy and arguably its democracy.

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Why no one is intervening in Syria (yet)

TW: killing of civilians; marginalization of Kurds, Palestinians, and Jews of Ethiopian ancestry; coerced sterilization

Yesterday, Amnesty International posed a question on twitter, or at least seemed to while promoting their most recent report on Syria. Their official account tweeted:

Amnesty International's tweet
(An Amnesty International tweet.)

That’s a fair question to ask, especially since, as the report claims, Syrians themselves are often asking it. It claims that one Syrian woman who the anonymous research spoke with wanted to know, “Why is the world doing nothing while we continue to be bombed to pieces every day, even inside our homes?”

As near as I can tell, one of the most pressing problems with intervening in Syria is that doing so appears likely to ignite a conflict as complicated and multifaceted as the first “World War” was for Europe. And this time, that would be after almost a century of technological refinements in weaponry. On the other hand, the problem with inaction, unfortunately, is that it seems only to reduce the risk of that outcome – not actually actively prevent it.

Map of Syria and its neighbors
(Syria and its neighbors, from here.)

Syria has a geopolitical context – it shares borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as a narrow maritime border that wouldn’t be terribly in the case of an intervening force having to enter Syria without land or air support from any of those five countries. Syria also has close ties with Iran, which is also the neighbor of both Turkey and Iraq. Having listed all those connections, let me explain – that is an incredibly diverse slice of the world covered in a mere seven countries. Along with that comes an incredibly diverse slice of on-going international conflicts that have in the past threatened all of the states governing those seven countries with destruction. In short, Syria is at the heart of a powderkeg.

Just to run down the events that have happened recently in that corner of the world:

-The Israeli and Iranian governments have begun speaking as if they are on the verge of starting a massive international war, which could potentially draw US, Chinese, and European support and proxies into the fray in a massive conflict between the “West” and the strongest “non-Western” nations in the world. Intervention by Iran would be read as an advance against Israel. Intervention by Israel or the US would be read as an advance against Iran. The balance of power necessary to prevent that outbreak of such a conflict in part requires that no one intervene in Syria, if not the freezing of the situation in Syria where it is.

-Within Israel, extremist factions have successfully lobbied for even more extensive segregation between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and the Israeli government has admitted to supporting the coercive sterilization of Jews with Ethiopian ancestry. These adds to the previous months of conflict and violence in Israel and Palestine, which has led to threats of another Intifada (active, potentially armed resistance by Palestinians) and highlighted the continuing conflict within Israeli communities over who qualifies as “properly” or “ideally” Israeli or Jewish. As a result, Israel seems particularly politically unstable at the moment and likely to make choices that are unwise in the long term.

-Turkey, which has long been plagued by undemocratic movements, has experienced a bit of panic over whether Islam has a growing political presence. This seems likely to herald both undemocratic restrictions on free religious expression and the growth of militant Islamism. This is pertinent to Syria as some of the opposition to the government is often couched in religious terms and much of the government’s violence is excused (as undemocratic acts in Turkey have been) as a preventative strategy against militant Islamists. Turkey, to some extent, finds itself fighting the same conflict as neighboring Syria, and is likely to have a stake in the outcome. That fact is complicated by the reality that Turkey has the support of NATO and much of the Western world in a way that Syria doesn’t and thus a trump card to play against Syria if the conflict is either willfully introduced into or accidentally threatens to spill over into Turkey. But Turkey also doesn’t want a destabilized Syria to serve as a training grounds and resupply territory for the increasingly intent Kurdish rebels.

In short, there are multiple ways for the conflict in Syria to ignite a broader religious conflict in the Middle East, to alter the ability of marginalized groups in Israel and Palestine to effectively protest their oppression, and to provide a means of militant Turks who want to guarantee the free expression of devout Muslims and Kurds within Turkey to militarily organize. The risks of intervention are not only that it will fail to actually improve the lives of Syrians, but that it will actively reduce the stability of almost every surrounding country.

But the conflict is already spilling into Iraq, with Syrian forces and anti-regime forces fighting in Iraq (and causing Iraqi civilian casualties). The Iraqi state is stuck in an even more reminiscent position of Syria’s government’s – as a Shia government finding itself in perpetual electoral and military conflict with various anti-government Sunnis. Both have at least some ties to Iran (although Syria’s are much stronger), and unlike Turkey, Iraq doesn’t have the means to have international actors demand that the conflict be prevented from spilling over. With all that in mind, the Iraqi government has started treating the Syrian soldiers injured in its territory. The field of conflict is broadening independent on Turkish, Israeli, Palestinian, and even Iranian interests in keeping Syria’s conflicts contained if not resolving them.

It’s worrisome to think that a better question for non-Syrians to ask themselves in the place of why they haven’t intervened in Syria is whether they will ultimately decide to intervene there and elsewhere in the future as the conflicts spreads.

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Al Jazeera messed up bad

TW: military intervention

Do you ever read something that’s so shockingly idiotic that you can’t even comprehend it at first? Because that was my experience with this Al Jazeera article on the supposed high public support in Mali for the French intervention.

To sum up, let’s start with the obvious problem with asking Malians in Bamako what they think of an intervention in north Mali. For those following along at home, Bamako is part of south Mali, so labeling your poll of the nation’s capital, which is outside of the affected region, “Mali Speaks”, is more than disingenuous, it’s erasive. It treats the position of a few hundred Malians in Bamako as the presumed default for the entire country, even on issues that affect Bamako differently.


(A map of Mali and its major cities shows this apparently difficult to discern truth – Bamako hasn’t experienced the Touareg uprisings, islamist occupation, or French intervention. So, how are Bamako residents representative? Image made by Evan Centanni.)

How does the intervention affect Bamako differently? It’s more than a simple fact that the intervention has focused its military forces in other regions than were the capital is located, it’s also that the not terribly democratic regime situated in Bamako is being bolstered by the intervention. From its inception, the intervention in Mali has been linked to the idea of saving the south-situated Malian government, and the avoidance of the thorny questions about Touareg nationalism, to say nothing of asking why islamism has so quickly become so powerful in northern Mali or Azawad.

Speaking of Azawad, the question sent out to those few hundred residents of Bamako was very interestingly phrased in that it pretty much rules out any possibility of there being an independent state or autonomous region in the area. So, for the small minority of Bamako residents who might be interested in such a solution, there’s no way to quickly and succinctly text back to the Al Jazeera affiliate that sent out the original query explaining how their opinions on the issue don’t fit the question they were asked.

Did I say text? Yes I did, the survey is not only geographically restricted to the Bamako metropolitan area, but also requires an active response from respondents via text messages. Even the Al Jazeera article admits that the portion of the Malian population being drawn from by sending out text messages is only “more than two-thirds of Malians.” What’s more, access to a cell phone is probably a good indicator of socio-economic class, which in turn will probably be one of the experience that will inform a Malian person’s support for the existing government. Should we be congratulating them for at least not using internet-based telecommunications, which only 2.7 percent of Malians (or even as Al Jazeera admits, about 3 percent) have access to?

And yes, I mentioned earlier that this is all self-reported, and avowedly for secular Arabophone and Western media consumption. Who do you think, of the political factions in Mali, is going to most strongly value the opinions of those audiences, be the most interested in engaging with those audiences, and ultimately communicate with an Al Jazeera affiliate that identified itself as such when it sent out the text? People who might be among those that view Al Jazeera as pro-Western and pro-Gulf-States propaganda aren’t going to be terribly interested in interacting with the station or its affiliates, are they? And that’s before we even get into how self-reported data tends to lead to all sorts of distortions in statistics even without systemic biases, like a distrust in those gathering the data.

Between this and France24 (sorry only in French) asking whether the French government might use the internet to its advantage while intervening in Mali, I have to wonder, is this blameless bias, or is there intent behind this? Or can I really believe that two separate people in multiple cases typed in the same responses word-for-word, for the several sentences they sent back?

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France and the Maghreb are getting trigger happy

A sort of a hierarchy is developing in Western Africa in the wake of the French intervention in Mali (which was simultaneous with a US-backed raid in Somalia, it should be noted). To summarize – France has begun air strikes on people who are not citizens of their country, who are not on their territory, and who aren’t service members of a state they are at war with. Such incidents are of course quite common, but that doesn’t make them any less severe infractions against the norms the United Nations was supposed to establish. Come to think of it, the privileges of a permanent seat for the allies in World War II on the Security Council aren’t even remotely in the same sort doubt nearly seventy years later.

While France is gunning down “militants” or “combatants,” Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya have purportedly sealed their borders with Mali to isolate the Touareg rebels in the North (French language link). There’s of course the obvious tension of those Arab-dominated states shutting down an effort to create an explicitly Berber state, as well as their interest in appearing moderate to western nations such as France who have made quite clear that they don’t mind killing North African “combatants” or whatever euphemism is en vogue. Of course, doing this for show risks alienating further the Berber minority domestically just as much as it hopefully maintains their status internationally.


(Just for reference in that and the following paragraph, here’s a map of Mali, from here.)

Of course, supply lines are typically remade in the face of such bans, so I expect smuggling to endanger the typically already marginal civilian populations in southern Algeria and Libya as well as Northern Niger (which would be an ideal detour around any purported blockade on the Malian-Algerian border. The extreme poverty of the region, a byproduct of not only the harsh environment but also French colonial misrule, would make those prospects quite attractive, in spite of the risks.

And of course, there’s the lot of the Malians under French scopes. Beyond those revolting against the admittedly quite undemocratic Malian government, there’s the inevitable “non-combatant” casualties. And as the border controls are also restricting importation of fuels into the region, the poverty found in Mali just as in much of the surrounding region will only be worsened. The intervention so far has both worsened the consequences of being proximate to rebels and the obvious point in rebelling, which is a unfortunate mixture of impacts to have.

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