Analysis: Burkina Faso’s coup deals a blow to France, as the military mission in the Sahel unfolds

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  • Burkina Faso coup raises more questions about France’s mission
  • Latest setback for Paris-led anti-militant operations in the Sahel
  • Unrest in the region caused by the growing jihadist threat
  • Violence could destabilize the Sahel and worsen the exodus of migrants
  • As France’s influence wanes, Russia’s grows

PARIS, Jan 25 (Reuters) – The military coup in Burkina Faso deals another blow to France’s faltering efforts to stabilize the Sahel region, where Islamist militants have gained strength and people’s attitudes towards the old colonial masters has hardened.

Successive coups in Mali, Chad and now Burkina Faso have weakened Paris’ local alliances, emboldened the jihadists who control large swaths of territory and opened the door for Russia to fill the void.

Diplomats warn that the spiral of violence could give a new impetus to migration from West Africa to Europe. It also threatens international mining operations and the stability of strategic French partners such as Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal.

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There have been tactical military successes since France intervened in its former colony of Mali in 2013 to stop militants from advancing on the capital Bamako before leading Western efforts to stabilize the region.

It has carried out operations targeting the most senior leaders of Al-Qaeda and regional affiliates of the Islamic State.

Some analysts say if France pulls out now, it could spell trouble.

“This (coup in Burkina Faso) puts the French in a difficult position because they are being beaten down badly in Mali… The whole regional struggle forces them to work closely with the person in charge,” said Michael Shurkin , a former CIA officer and director of global programs at the consulting firm 14 North Strategies.

“If they (the French) left, this whole thing would completely collapse.”

That leaves tough choices for French President Emmanuel Macron, who is due to run again in a few weeks and wants to underscore his leadership qualities.

“I remind you that our priority in the region is to fight Islamist terrorism,” a defiant Macron said in response to the coup in Burkina Faso. We don’t know if he succeeds.

RECOGNITION SERIES

Macron’s policy in the Sahel since 2017 has been to make local forces responsible for their own long-term security. To do this, thousands of French soldiers have been deployed and 1 billion euros spent each year for Operation Barkhane.

But two coups in Mali in the past 18 months, with the junta now refusing to step down for a civilian transition, have upended that strategy.

Macron sought to adapt. Last June, it began cutting troop numbers by some 5,000 to 4,000 with the aim of halving the contingent later this year.

He withdrew from three key bases in northern Mali to return control of security to the Malian authorities and the United Nations, which has some 14,000 peacekeepers stationed in the country.

The aim was to focus French efforts on counter-terrorism, hunt down Islamist leaders and nurture a group of European special forces – the Takuba – to accompany local troops in operations and signal that Europe was capable of unite in a common cause.

But France’s relations with the Malian junta, which it wants to persuade to accept a transition to democracy, have crumbled to the point that Macron had to cancel plans to visit troops stationed in Mali over Christmas after the junta refused to meet him.

Blaming Paris for abandoning it after pulling out of northern cities, the junta has turned to Russian-linked mercenaries to fill the void.

When France intervened in Mali in 2013, its fighter jets were essential in stopping the Islamist advance. Nine years later, these same warplanes dropped flares in November to warn civilians who were blocking French military convoys.

Harsh sanctions imposed by the regional economic bloc ECOWAS in Mali have not deterred the junta. On the contrary, people have turned against the bloc, accusing it of being France’s lackey.

French-backed efforts to implement new UN sanctions were vetoed by Russia and China, creating a sense that France was against Malians.

This growing frustration spilled over into Burkina Faso on Monday. A Reuters reporter saw a group burning a French flag just hours after the coup, while placards read “Together, we say no to France. Shit France!”

“Today, the people of Burkina Faso are asking for Russia’s support to accompany them in this fierce struggle that is imposed on us,” coup leader Armel Kaboré told Reuters.

TROOPS NOT WELCOME

The Takuba force includes 14 countries, the majority of which are Eastern European and Scandinavian. Its workforce on the ground – about 600 which includes medical and logistical teams – is more symbolic than operationally significant.

But now there is deep unease among Europeans over the presence of Russia and mercenaries and the political crisis.

“Nobody knows what to do. Nobody wants to stay at all costs. In Mali, we have to convince the junta to accept a credible transition. But we will follow the French,” said a European diplomat whose country contributes to the task force Takuba. .

France is desperate to ensure that no one leaves, having bet so much on the “Europeanization” of the intervention in the Sahel. Some have reaffirmed their commitment, such as Estonia. Sweden maintained plans to withdraw around 100 staff in March.

It may not depend on France. Mali’s junta this week called on Denmark to immediately withdraw the troops it deployed in early January as part of Takuba, although Copenhagen later said they had a clear invitation to be there.

If the junta decided to ask Takuba to leave, it would severely limit Paris. Niger, which is now France’s main operational base in the region, has already ruled out taking on additional foreign forces, officials said.

Diplomats say the cost of a full withdrawal would be too high for France, given the military kudos it has earned from key allies including the United States. But he may still need to refine his strategy.

“Maybe Barkhane goes away and the French focus all the more on the littoral countries,” said Shurkin of consultancy 14 North Strategies.

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Additional reporting by Bate Felix and Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Mike Collett-White

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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