Should the United Nations intervene militarily in Syria, where President Assad’s bloody crackdown has killed thousands? Many foreign policy experts are keenly following this. By contrast, hardly any are following the coup and secessionism in Mali, the Saharan country in Africa. Yet Mali tellingly illustrates the unintended consequences of trying to eliminate a bloody dictator. That has lessons for intervention in Syria too.
Last year, the Arab Spring toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and catalysed demonstrations in other countries too. The US, which had long patronized the dictators, switched to supporting the pro‐democracy agitators. But, as always, its actions were dictated as much by expediency as principles.
The Arab Spring came to both Bahrain and Libya. The US loved the Bahrain monarch, who hosted its fleet in the Gulf, but hated Gaddafi of Libya who had financed many terrorist movements and once blown up an American plane. Result: the US looked the other way as Bahrain, with Saudi help, crushed its demonstrators. But in the case of Libya, the US worked itself up into a moral lather, and pledged military support to Gaddafi’s supposedly democratic opponents.
Actually, the Libyan uprising was more ethnic than pro‐democracy. Libya’s eastern tribes had long resented rule by the western tribes backing Gaddafi. When Gaddafi swore to crush the easterners, Nato said it would intervene, supposedly to prevent mass civilian killings.
Everybody knew that civilian casualties were inevitable in an ugly civil war, regardless of who won. Yet Nato pretended that helping the easterners overthrow Gaddafi would somehow prevent civilian casualties. When the triumphant easterners wreaked ethnic vengeance by slaughtering civilian tribal foes, there was mild tut‐tutting but nothing more from Nato.
Gaddafi had hired many foreign mercenaries to protect him. The mercenaries included a regiment of Tuaregs—nomadic Arabs of the Sahara—from Mali. When Gaddafi fell, the mercenaries fled, carrying a formidable array of arms, ranging from armoured carriers to shoulder‐fired missiles. The Tuareg regiment marched 500 miles across southern Algeria to return home to northern Mali.
Now, Mali, like many African countries, was a colonial creation, lumping together different tribes with no earlier history of nationalism. There was always tension between the Tuaregs of northern Mali and the mainly black Africans of southern Mali, who constituted the majority. When the Tuareg regiment returned home, it joined hands with existing northern secessionist groups (called the MNLA), and declared independence for northern Mali, which they named Azawad.
The government in the southern capital, Bamako, could not get its act together in facing the secessionist threat. This gave an excuse to some Army commanders to mount a coup, arguing that the civilian government was not tough enough. In effect, Mali split into two regimes, both of doubtful legitimacy. Chaos and anarchy hit civilians in both halves, as in any civil war.
Remarkably, the biggest beneficiary may be al‐Qaida. Its local branch, AQIM, has long been active in northern Mali. AQIM has joined hands with the ex‐Libyan Tuaregs and its MNLA allies to run northern Mali. The MNLA is nominally secular. But it lacks the numbers and organisation of AQIM, which dominates the administration and has imposed strict sharia law. Tuareg women, who used to roam around freely, cannot leave their homes save with a male relative.
Many western columnists spouted outrage at Gaddafi’s atrocities on civilians. Yet none of them agonises over Nato responsibility for the chain of events causing massive civilian tragedies in Mali. An entire country has been shattered by the consequences of Nato intervention in Libya. The western media bemoan Mali’s tragedy, but don’t own any responsibility for it.
Instead, the western media worry that al‐Qaida has got a new sanctuary, and may have access to missiles and rocket launchers that it never had before. The rebels already claim to have downed a US drone in northern Mali, though the US denies this.
Mali drives home the law of unintended consequences. Nato intervention in Libya was only half‐principled, and motivated mainly by a desire to oust Gaddafi. But even the purest, most high‐minded intervention would have caused massive civilian casualties and strife, in both Libya and Mali. The most ironic unintended result has been the creation of a major new al‐Qaida sanctuary.
This lesson must be kept in mind before intervening militarily in Syria. Assad needs to go. But ousting him by force will deepen what is already a civil war, and cause horrendous casualties. Islamic extremists may be the biggest beneficiaries. The UN must look for non‐military solutions, howeverineffective these may look today.