Amidst ongoing debates in the United States pertaining to possible military action against Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned America and its allies against taking one-sided action in Syria. Ahead of the G20 Summit, which is set to begin in Saint Petersburg on Thursday, the Russian President also indicated that he would not exclude Russia from agreeing to a possible US-led military strike on Syria, as long as it was proven that Syria’s regime had carried out the August 21 attack. While the G20 summit is suppose to concentrate on the global economy, it is highly likely that the Syrian crisis will dominate the discussions amongst global leaders.
Speaking during a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press and Russia’s state Channel 1 television, Putin’s remarks come just one day after members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on a draft resolution backing the use of US military force. According to the draft resolution, the operation would be restricted to a “limited and tailored use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria,” and ban the use of any ground forces. The measure, which will be voted on next week, sets a time limit of sixty days on any operation.
While US President Barack Obama has called for punitive action in response to an alleged chemical attack that was carried out on the outskirts of Damascus on 21 August, President Putin stated on Wednesday that any military strikes without the approval of the United Nations would be a form of “an agreession.” The Russian President further noted that while his country had not ruled out supporting a UN Security Council resolution that would authorize the use of force, it would have to be proved “beyond doubt” that the Syrian goverment used chemical weapons before such a mission would be launched. In relation to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, Putin noted that it was “ludicrous” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia, would use chemical weapons at a time when it was gaining ground against the rebels. However the Russian President did specify that “if there is evidence that chemical weapons were used, and by the regular army…then this evidence must be presented to the UN Security Council. And it must be convincing,” adding that Russia would “be ready to act in the most decisive and serious way” if there was clear proof of what weapons were used and who used them but that at the moment, it is “too early” to discuss what Russia would do if America took action without a UN resolution. During the interview, Putin also confirmed that Russia has currently suspended delivering further components of S-300 air defence missile systems to Syria, adding that “if we see steps are taken that violate the existing international norms, we shall think how we should act in the future, in particular regarding supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain regions of the world.
Ahead of next week’s vote in Congress, on whether to back President Obama’s push for military strikes in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in order to promote the Obama administration’s case. During his discussions, Kerry indicated that there was evidence “beyond any reasonable doubt” that the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime prepared for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. He further indicated to senators that while the President was not requesting that America go to war, “he is asking only for the power to make clear, to make certain, that the United States means what we say.” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and top US military officers Gen. Martin Dempsey also appeared before the Senate panel. While a number of high profile officials, including Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger support Obama’s call for military action in Syria, the latest opinion polls in the US indicate that public opposition with respect to US involvement in the conflict is growing, with six out of ten Americans opposed to missile strikes.
Internationally, France, which is due to debate the issue on Wednesday in Parliament, has also strongly back the US plan for military action. On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande stated that “when a chemical massacre takes place, when the world is informed of it, when the evidence is delivered, when the guilty parties are known, then there must be an answer.” While Hollande is under no obligation to obtain parliamentary approval for action, with public opinion deeply sceptical of military strikes, many lawmakers have called for a vote on the matter. While UK Prime Minister David Cameron had also backed the military action, the British parliament had voted against a resolution on military action. With the UK against the military action, the US is seeking other allies.
While the world debates possible military action in Syria, the conflict, which began in March 2011, has resulted in more than 100,000 people thought to have died since the uprising aginast President Assad. On Tuesday, the UN refugee agency indicated that more than two million Syrians were now registered as refugees, indicating that a further 4.25 million have been displaced within the country.
Russia – US Relations
After returning to the Kremlin for a third term as president last year, relations between Russia and the US have dramatically deteriorated as the two nations have disagreed over a number of issues which have included the Syrian crisis and human rights. Tensions peaked this summer after Moscow gave asylum to US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, which prompted President Obama to cancel his planned bilateral visit to Moscow ahead of the G20 summit. While Putin did admit that he was disappointed by Obama’s decision, he did note that the move was not a “catastrophe” and that he understood that some of Moscow’s decisions did not sit well within the US administration.
Although no official bilateral meeting is planned to take place between Obama and Putin at the G20 Summit, a White House official indicated on Wednesday that the two presidents are expected “to have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the various meetings of the G20.”
Crisis in Mali
French President François Hollande has announced that his country is ready to stop Islamist militants if they continue to proceed with their offensive. However Mr. Holllande noted that France would move forward only on the condition that they receive authorization from the United Nations. Mr. Hollande’s statement is in response to pleas made by current Malian President Dioncounda Traore, who has requested immediate help to counter the renewed rebel offensive that has begun to move further south into territories that were previously under the government’s control. Earlier this week, Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist militant groups controlling the north, indicated that it had entered the key central town of Konna and that it had intended to advance further south. Konna is a strategic point in Mali as it is located 375 miles northeast of Mali’s capital city of Bamako. The advance has been seen as a major setback to government forces and it has prompted Mali to request urgent help from France. Furthermore, residents in the town of Mopti have indicated that they have seen French troops aiding Malian forces in preparing for a counter-offensive against militants that are stationed in Konna.
Following this week’s rapid developments, an emergency meeting was held on Thursday by the UN Security Council, which called for a “rapid deployment” of an African-led international force. The Council also expressed “grave concern” pertaining to the recent capture of Konna by “terrorists and extremist groups.” UN diplomats in New York have also confirmed that President Traore has already appealed for help to Paris as well as to UN Chief Ban Ki-moon.
In the wake of Mr. Hollande’s speech, France has advised that all “non-essential” French citizens should leave Mali immediately. This guidance is in line with other countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia who have all expanded their regional advisories to include Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal and Mopti as well as the northern parts of Segou, Koulikoro and Kayes. MS RISK currently advises against all travel to any part of Mali as there is an unpredictable security situation throughout the country which is coupled with a heightened threat from terrorism. Any companies who have fixed interests in the country should take measured precautions such as the thinning out of non-essential staff, restricting travel throughout the country, seeking advice from security forces, ensuring that journey management systems are in place as well a review crisis management contingencies.
The European Union’s (EU) Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton has also called for “enhanced and accelerated international engagement,” and that the EU would “accelerate preparations for the deployment of a military mission to Mali to provide training and advise to the Malian forces.” While it is not currently clear when a military intervention will be deployed, diplomatic sources have stated that Mr. Hollande is set to hold talks with Mr. Traore in Paris next week. Although Mr. Hollande has not specified the type of intervention that France would take on, one possibility may be the use of air strikes if the rebels continue their advance and end up taking control of the strategic central town of Mopti. Media reports in Paris are indicating that a detachment of French troops is already on the ground at the airport in Mopti, which is located about 43 miles south of the frontline. Although it is not clear as to what their role is, it is highly likely that they are their in order to assess the situation ahead of a possible intervention. What is clear is that any aid given to Mali by France will take place within the framework of a UN Security Council resolution. In turn, any plans by France to intervene will no doubtedly take into calculation two questions: the fact that there are seven French hostages currently being held in the Sahel region and what would occur if France were to intervene. Secondly, what guarantees are there that an air strike would halt the advance and what back up would be initiated if the strikes were not successful.
Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was removed from power by military forces loyal to Captain Amadou Sanogoon on the night of 10 December 2012, a short time before he was due to leave for a scheduled trip to France.
He has since appeared on State television and resigned his position.
With western diplomatic missions all warning against unnecessary travel to Mali, those companies with fixed interests in the country need to take measured precautions if they have not done so already. This is especially an issue for organisations with any interest in the so-called Azawad region – that portion of the country which is under insurgent control. Preparations should include the following:
- Thinning out non-essential staff and dependents
- Restricting expat and local national internal travel
- Seeking advice from the security forces
- Ensuring journey management systems are in place and work
- Reviewing crisis management contingencies and carrying out exercises of these plans
- Registration of expatriates with relevant diplomatic missions and seeking advice on what support will be forthcoming (if any) if conditions deteriorate
- Liaison with insurers to know any exclusions or limits to existing cover
While the situation in Bamako plays out in relation to central government control, the most extreme risks will continue to be in the Azawad region east of Mopti. There is expected to be military clashes there between the various insurgent groupings against the ECOWAS-bolstered Mali army force in line with the UN Security Council authorization to use force. Despite the obvious threats in the Azawad, organisations in Mali should be braced for nuisance attacks and isolated terrorist attacks in the capital of Bamako. When al-Shabaab was weakened in Somalia, these types of attacks were experienced in Uganda and Kenya. Although the two conflicts are not connected, it is logical to predict that similar tactics may evolve and be witnessed in Mali and inside contributing nations. This threat was recently evidenced by the kidnapping of a French citizen in Diema, in the west of the country.