France in the Face of Sahel’s Shifting Sand

France has recently revealed its intention to change its tools for influence in Africa – or so it seems. The declaration was made during President Emmanuel Macron’s virtual summit with Sahel leaders on 9 July. 

While Macron tried to tone down the French withdrawal by describing it as being “limited” in number and geographical scope and aimed at reducing the financial burdens and mitigating the loss of life without relinquishing the requirements for maintaining power in the region, the summit made it clear to Sahel leaders that France has, at long last, unveiled its roadmap for withdrawal from the Sahel, a region that remained for decades France’s most notable zone of influence worldwide.   

But France’s roadmap is loaded with details and messages the significance of which goes far beyond alleviating the financial burdens and reducing losses. Ahead of the summit, Gen. Mahamat Deby, Head of the Military Transitional Council in Chad, made a quick visit to Paris where he met with Macron in a one-hour session during which he was acquainted with France’s new strategy in the Sahel region. But more significant was the reservation and resentment expressed by Chad’s new ruler over the Russian provocations against Chad following the incursion of troops from the Central African Republic into the Chadian territory, clashing with his forces.  

This is indicative of the size and influence of Russia within the confines of the Sahel, a dilemma that Paris has to face or at least support its allies to serve as a barricade in the event that this Russian incursion grows, a very likely situation given the dynamics that go beyond Central Africa. 

This raised the concerns of the new Chadian general who enjoys a military experience and reputation as well as a wide network of relations which he gained during his tenure as assistant to the commander of the Chadian armed forces in Mali, where the latter participated as a major force in the military “Operation Barkhane” aimed at countering terrorism and illegal armed groups. Operation Barkhane – in which the French forces participated along with the Chad forces and other battalions of a number of other Sahel countries– is now confined to history after France announced ending it in the July summit.   

Ending Operation Barkhane is another indicative signal, particularly this step coincides with the growing unveiled threats the region is facing.  The military operation that helped preserve reasonable balance in the region for years in coordination with the US forces, AFRICOM, with the aim of cracking down on the activities of terrorist organizations, is now ending with France’s military bases in Kidal, Timbuktu, and Tessali in northern Mali seeing closure and the French troops seeing a drawdown to about 2000 down from 5100 personnel. This drawdown is planned to be carried out in the period between the second half of 2021 and the beginning of 2022. According to Paris, the 2000 troops will not be involved in military acts unless an agreement is reached on an alternative military operation in which European countries and the United States become jointly involved in it to prevent the region from plunging into a state of insecurity in favor of armed groups and terrorist organizations. France’s involvement in the Sahel battle costed it €8 billion and assessing the outcomes, it needed a “decisive review”, to use Macron’s words.

On the other side, Paris sees that adjusting its on-the-ground engagement in the Sahel region which is characterized by insecurity may create better conditions for it given the military experience it gained following its fruitful collaboration with AFRICOM. The prosecution and murder of Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi set a stunning example of the hands-on experience of the French forces which still have presence on the ground and carry out some qualitative operations that are primarily intelligent-based. 

The French vision of the whole scene has been revealed in Macron’s tweet on Al-Sahrawi’s killing, saying:  “The nation is thinking tonight of all its heroes who died for France in the Sahel in the Serval and Barkhane operations, of the bereaved families, of all of its wounded. Their sacrifice is not in vain. With our African, European and American partners, we will continue this fight.”

Macron’s statement is quite revealing of the in-theatre components and actors involved in it following the murder of a prominent terrorist leader like Al-Sahrawi by a French military operation that struck him by a drone while he was riding a motorcycle accompanied by one of his companions. Intelligence units near the scene identified Al-Sahrawi and managed to pass the information along to the military force that moved and neutralized him.

According to Florence Parly, Minister of the Armed Forces of the French Republic, Al-Sahrawi’s killing is as a great success for the French forces, coming as a settling of old scores with Al-Sahrawi and in retaliation for the attacks against the French forces. In 2012, Al-Sahrawi was engaged in the fighting in northern Mali while joining Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Then, he co-founded the Al-Mourabitoun organization with Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Throughout his long involvement in terrorist activities with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, he was responsible for the killing of the first French soldier in November 2013 at the hands of Al-Mourabitoun and later he plotted and claimed responsibility for the collision of two French helicopters in November 2019 which resulted in the death of 13 French troops whom Macron consoled their families in his recent tweet.

That said, France – more than any other country – is well aware that the Sahel region is capable of producing dozens from the likes of Al-Sahrawi and this is likely to continue over the near future. However, what matters is France’s unspoken realization that the Sahel’s maps and sands are moving strongly beneath its feet, with some wind gusting from Russia, China, and Turkey and some sweeping through the armed organizations that has grown too big to be tamed, to the extent that they noticeably intervene in the politics of the countries of the region.

So, the question is: how will France handle this complex situation? This is next week’s topic of discussion.

This article was originally published in Al-Watan newspaper on 20 September 2021.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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