While the world wrestles with how to stop the bloodshed in Syria, it has an equally thorny dilemma in Africa: how to dislodge the armed rebels who have transformed northern Mali into a vast haven for Islamist terrorists. In Mali, as in Syria, there is mounting pressure for foreign military intervention. But there is also resistance from key powers. And, as in Syria, there is a worry that any military action in Mali would be fraught with danger, complexity, and the risk of worsening the crisis.
Support for military action has been growing. The African Union and the West African political bloc are pushing for a 3,000-soldier intervention force to enter Mali. Two major powers, France and the United States, are known to be extremely concerned about the Islamist radical groups in northern Mali, and could also favour intervention.
The United States is already using small unmarked airplanes to spy on the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the militant Islamist groups in northern Mali, according to a report this week in the Washington Post.
The U.S. turboprop airplanes, loaded with hidden sensors and surveillance technology, are searching for AQIM from secret bases in Mauritania and Burkina Faso, the report said. The United States has also spent millions of dollars on anti-terrorism military training in Mali – although some of its trainees later became leaders of the army coup in Mali this year, to the Pentagon's embarrassment.
France, meanwhile, says it would support a military intervention in Mali if it is approved by the United Nations Security Council. As the former colonial power in the region, France is a key player in Mali, and its support could be crucial for any military intervention. Six citizens of France are currently held hostage by AQIM, probably in Mali's north.
West African leaders have warned that jihadi fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are helping train the Islamists in Mali. Even the Nigerian radical group Boko Haram is reported to have a presence in northern Mali now.
"There is a threat of terrorist groups setting up in northern Mali," said France's new president, Francois Hollande. "There is outside intervention that is destabilizing Mali and setting up groups whose vocation goes well beyond Mali, in Africa and perhaps beyond."
At a meeting this week, the UN Security Council said it would "examine" the African Union's proposals for intervention in Mali. But it asked for further information on the logistics and financing of a possible military force in Mali, and it refused to give its formal approval to the proposal, despite the African Union's request for "urgent" support.
Until recently, Mali was a favourite of Canada and other Western countries, widely seen as democratic and liberal. It received more than $100-million in aid annually from Canada alone, and Canadian mining companies have been heavily involved in Mali.
But the foreign aid was suspended after the military coup in March, and the country fell into turmoil when the north was captured by a loose coalition of Tuareg separatists and Islamist radicals, including AQIM and another Islamist group called Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith). Much of their weaponry and some of their fighters came from Libya after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi last year.
The rebels have declared independence in the northern two-thirds of Mali, but they have been plagued by feuding and even armed clashes between the Tuareg militia and the Islamist fighters. At least three people were reportedly wounded in fighting this week between Ansar Dine and Tuareg rebels in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
While the intervention dilemma is reminiscent of today's Syria, the haven for terrorists in northern Mali is an echo of Somalia – or even Afghanistan in the 1990s. Both countries, like northern Mali, provided shelter to anti-Western terrorist groups – and both countries eventually became the target for U.S.-led or U.S.-backed military action.
The Islamists in northern Mali are seeking to create a theocratic state, based on Islamic sharia law. They have raised their black flag over their strongholds in the north, shutting down nightclubs and ordering women to wear veils.
If the UN Security Council decides to approve a military intervention in Mali, it could lead to broader Western logistical and financial support for the West African intervention, although Nigerians would likely provide the bulk of the planned 3,000-troop force.
But it is unclear how any intervention could drive out the rebel militia. House-to-house fighting in Timbuktu or other northern cities would be a logistical nightmare and would cause heavy damage to historic treasures.
The West African troops do not even have proper vehicles for the rugged desert terrain of northern Mali. They would also need military aircraft and intelligence support from a major power such as France or the United States. Even then, victory against the rebels would be far from guaranteed.