Malian junta in dire straits while Russia is looming. On the 12th of September 2023, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a coalition of Arab/Tuareg groups in Northern Mali which in the past was involved in fighting to install an independent state in the area, released a statement announcing that they are in a state of war with Malian Junta. This development effectively renounced the 2015 peace deal, the so-called Algiers agreement, between the government and the CMA which was ending the hostilities between CMA and Malian Army.
This development comes amid the complete withdrawal of the UN forces (UNISMA) from Mali that is planned to take place in six months, and was announced by the UN on the 30th of June 2023. UN peacekeepers have already withdrawn from Northern Mali creating a vacuum that is being exploited by CMA and other militants such as Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants belonging to the designated terrorist organization Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam Wal-Muslimeen (JNIM).
On the 13th of September, immediately after the statement of CMA declaring that hostilities against Malian Army were resuming, CMA forces launched an attack against a Malian military camp in the town of Bourem, a strategic town situated on the road between Timbuktu and Gao, close to the Niger River. Although CMA claimed that they had captured the military camp, photographic evidence suggested otherwise. According to multiple open sources, CMA forces suffered heavy losses after being targeted by the Malian air force. Moreover, according to open sources, the Malian Army was supported by Wagner paramilitaries.
On the same day (13/09) according to multiple open sources, a Malian Su-25 attack aircraft was shot down in the Gao region, Mali, while conducting attacks against militants belonging to the CMA. The Malian Ministry of Defense, in a press statement, confirmed the loss of the Su-25 without publishing further details. The aircraft was delivered in early January by Russia as part of military aid to the military junta that ruled Mali since May 2021. It has to be noted that it is the second loss of Su-25 for the Malian Airforce. Another Su-25 crashed in Gao, on 4 October 2022 a few months after it was delivered (August 2022) by the Russians as part of another military aid package containing aircraft and helicopters.
That was the second loss for the Malian air force in just one week as on the 8th of September, Al-Qaeda affiliated militants belonging to the terrorist organization Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam Wal-Muslimeen (JNIM), shot down a Mi-8 helicopter belonging to Malian airforce in the Segou region. According to various open sources, onboard were Malian soldiers and Wagner paramilitaries. While the Malian Air Force is considered one of the better-equipped in the region, it will not be able to sustain losses at such a pace. Moreover, as the operational tempo increases, the lack of trained pilots and of proper maintenance will lead to more casualties for the Malian Air Force.
It has to be noted that this past week, in various Wagner-affiliated Telegram- Channels, footage was published of Wagner paramilitaries airlanding with the use of helicopters in the Malian desert. This piece of information is in line with multiple reports claiming that Wagner paramilitaries are spearheading Malian’s army operations against militants in the Malian desert. However, this was not officially confirmed by the Malian Armed Forces.
On the 18th of September 2023, CMA militants stormed a Malian Army military base in Lere, Timbuktu region. Video footage suggests that the CMA militants overrun the military base, capturing Malian armed forces personnel as well as weapons, ammunition, and military hardware. Among the spoils, a T54 main battle tank, a BTR-60 as well as a number of Heavy MG equipped technicals are included. Another Aero L-39 Albatros of the Malian Airforce was lost during the fighting, the second airframe of the kind lost in just few days.
The power vacuum created by the withdrawal of the UN forces in Northern and North Eastern Mali, was also exploited by Al-Qaeda affiliated militants belonging to the terrorist organization Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam Wal-Muslimeen (JNIM). Through its media wing”Az-Zalaka Foundation”, JNIM in a series of announcements declared war against Wagner paramilitaries and called for ”Jihad”. By addressing Wagner as its archenemy, JNIM is trying to influence locals attracting volunteers in order to bolster its forces as well as pose as the forerunner of Islamic fundamentalism in the area of Sahel.
Since the 13th of August JNIM has imposed a blockade on Timbuktu, a Malian city of 50.000 inhabitants in Northern Mali. On the 11th and on the 14th of September Timbuktu airport was targeted by mortar fire. Furthermore, an attack against the civilian river boat ” Tombouctou” which is connecting Timbuktu with other major cities through river Niger, caused at least 40 fatalities among the onboard civilians and the military personnel which was providing protection to the vessel.
The deterioration of the overall security situation in Timbuktu region as well as the mortar attacks against the local airport, led the Sky Mali, the only commercial airline flying to Timbuktu, to cancel all domestic flights and restricted more the already strained communication of the city of Timbuktu with the rest of the country. According to local open sources the city is already facing shortages in food, fuel and other consumer products.
The Malian Junta to address the worsening security situation in the country engaged diplomatically with neighboring countries (mainly the military Junta’s ruled neighbors) as well as with Russia. On the 2nd of September, a delegation of the Russian Defense Ministry headed by Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov arrived in Mali on a formal visit. It has to be noted that Yevkurov, prior his Mali visit, had already visited Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, as well as Burkina Faso, the countries where Wagner has a strong military presence.
On the 16th of September 2023, there was yet another visit by a Russian military delegation, when Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and GRU General Andrei Averyanov visited Bamako, Mali. They met with the defense ministers from Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, along with junta leaders Assimi Goita and Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. GRU has special bonds with Wagner as several ex GRU members were notable Wagner members. Moreover, there were unconfirmed reports that GRU was supporting and up to a certain extend controlling Wagner’s operations.
On that same date (16/09/23), the leader of the military Junta that rules Mali, Col. Assimi Goïta announced that Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso have formed a new military alliance through the signing of the Liptako-Gourma Charter, instituting collective defense and mutual assistance. This new military agreement although of little practical value, as all the parties are heavily strained and could do little to help each other, has significant political value as it is effectively canceling the G5 Sahel agreement which was an agreement providing an institutional framework to promote development and security within its five member countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger and was heavily supported by EU and the international community.
As UNISMA is stepping up the withdrawal of its forces from Northern and North Eastern Mali, it is likely that the attacks of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam Wal-Muslimeen (JNIM) against the Malian Army will intensify. Both CMA and JNIM will try to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of UNISMA by capturing military bases and controlling the rural areas of Northern and North Eastern Mali.
Cooperation between the Malian Junta and Russia will intensify and Russia will use the Wagner mercenaries which are already stationed in Mali to assist the Malian Army in its operations against both CMA and JNIM. Increased operational tempo in conjunction with inadequate maintenance and lack of experienced pilots will result in more losses for the Malian Airforce. It is highly likely that the 6 UCAB TB-2 Bayraktars that Malian Air-force already possesses, will play a greater role in the military operations of the Malian Army against CMA and JNIM.
The intensified armed conflict in Mali will negatively affect the already dire humanitarian situation in the country. That in turn will contribute to the displacement of the population both internally and externally and as a result the number of Malian refugees and asylum-seekers will increase.