Paris to withdraw several hundred troops to make way for stronger European presence in conflict-hit region, sources say.
Leaders of five Sahelian countries in West Africa and their French counterpart will hold a summit this week to discuss the fight against armed groups in the volatile region.
The heads of state of the so-called G5 Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – will converge in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, while French President Emmanuel Macron will attend virtually.
The conflict in the western portion of the Sahel largely between state forces and armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda has ravaged the semi-arid strip south of the Sahara Desert for much of the past decade, sparking a major humanitarian crisis.
Almost 7,000 people died due to worsening fighting last year, according to data by the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project. In late January, the United Nations warned the “unrelenting violence” had internally displaced more than two million people, up from 490,000 at the start of 2019.
France has 5,100 troops stationed across the Sahel, alongside UN, American and European partners. At the summit, it is expected to announce a drawdown of 600 soldiers from Barkhane, its military operation in the region.
But what other issues are expected to be on the agenda of the talks on Monday and Tuesday, and how has the conflict shifted since the last major Sahel summit in the French city of Pau?
A year ago in Pau, France sought to reaffirm support from the Sahel nations in the face of rising anti-French sentiment and double down on its military-focused solution to the region’s crisis. Under this approach, it committed extra troops to Barkhane; promised to implement an intelligence-sharing agreement and integrated military command structure with the G5 nations; and said it would step up intervention in the “tri-border” region, the three-country point joining Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger which has seen the most intense fighting.
During a speech to troops in France last month, Macron implied the actions taken in Pau had worked and touted 2020 as, “a year of results in the tri-border area”.
Looking ahead, he said he was going to attend the “new summit and structuring decisions with a course that remains unchanged: stability and victory against the terrorists”.
However, a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) earlier this month called for a “course correction” in France’s approach, noting that many of its international backers – and even some French officials – are “disappointed” by the results of Macron’s strategy so far.
“In areas where there have been significant victories against the terrorist groups, things have not returned to normal,” Hannah Armstrong, the ICG’s senior consulting analyst for the Sahel and the report’s primary author, told Al Jazeera. “The idea was, go get rid of the terrorist and then the state can be deployed – that’s really not happening.”
Armstrong said anti-French sentiment, one of the issues Macron attempted to address in Pau last year, has not markedly improved. On January 20, Malian forces dispersed a crowd of protesters against the French military presence in the country with tear gas.
“I think the Sahel leaders are in a very difficult position, where to some extent they may be caught between what France wants and what their populations want,” she added.
Further divergence from France’s plan for the region has also come from some Sahel leaders’ desire to negotiate with the armed groups, something which France says should not be on the agenda.
On February 4, Burkina Faso’s prime minister said the country is looking to start negotiations for peace with the armed groups operating in the north and east of the country. Last year, former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita initiated similar negotiations.
The issue is now likely to be addressed with the leaders at the summit.
One thing that seems to have worked in France’s favour since last year is that Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin – al-Qaeda’s Sahel affiliate – and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, once united in their campaign against the French, have begun fighting each other. An intelligence source told Al Jazeera the battles could be turf wars over trafficking routes, but whatever the reason, it has weakened both sides.
There have also been reports of successful French operations which have neutralised large numbers of fighters, although at least one of these announcements was marred by allegations an air raid had targeted a wedding ceremony in Mali and not a group of fighters. However, it is possible this was part of a disinformation campaign by armed groups.
“The situation in the Sahel has demonstrably worsened during the past year,” Judd Devermont, Africa director for The Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, DC-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“The Pau summit’s much-heralded initiatives so far have been underwhelming. The Coalition for the Sahel [aimed at bringing together Sahel countries and international partners] hardly qualifies as a breakthrough and Takuba task force is only expected to become fully operational this year.”
Another new development in the French strategy over the past year, Takuba represents part of France’s attempt to share some of the military burdens with its European partners and to justify the expected troop drawdown. It will see up to 150 special forces from EU countries deployed to the region, with the Czech Republic, Estonia and Sweden having already sent troops.
“The reduction [in troop numbers] probably reflects French domestic politics, where a small majority oppose operations in Mali, as well as continued anti-French feelings amongst Sahelians,” Devermont added. “France also may be counting on European countries, through Takuba, to backfill any adjustments to Barkhane’s total troop presence.”
On Friday, Human Rights Watch issued a statement urging Sahelian nations to address frequent allegations throughout 2020 of atrocities committed by the security forces of the Sahel countries.
“Heads of state gathering in Chad should commit to protecting the rights of civilians and detainees and investigating alleged abuses during counterterrorism operations in the Sahel region,” the statement read.
Whatever developments in the military strategies of France and the G5 countries occur in the upcoming summit, the causes of the crisis remain complex, with analysts long warning that factors such as underdevelopment, the effects of climate change and tensions between farming and animal-herding all need to be addressed.