After recent armed confrontations in the northern Malian region of Azawad, the Algiers Agreement between Bamako and armed movements of Tuareg tribes faces its toughest test since its signing in 2015.
The Malian army is seeking to take control of the area after UN forces begin withdrawing from there.
Since August, several battles and clashes have erupted between the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CEMA) and the Malian army, backed by elements of the Russian company Wagner.
This development prompted representatives of the Coordination of Azawad Movements in Bamako to leave the Malian capital on the instructions of their commanders and declare mobilization among their fighters, marking the beginning of the collapse of the peace agreement.
The two sides share responsibility for starting hostilities, which have been officially halted since the signing of the Algiers Agreement in 2015.
The Algiers agreement put an end to fighting that erupted in 2012 after the Azawad movements declared independence and secession from Mali after taking part in battles against the government army.
The Coordination of Azawad Movements accuses the military council forces in Bamako and Wagner elements of bombing their positions with warplanes and attacking their units.
Mali has recently witnessed armed attacks targeting a riverboat and military sites, which the army used as a pretext to launch a military operation in the north, leading to a clash with the Azawad movements that signed the peace agreement.
The Malian government accused the Azawad movements of colluding with what it described as terrorist groups and stressed its desire to extend its authority over the entire country, including areas from which UN forces are withdrawing in the north.
At the same time, it considered that this in no way constituted a hostile act on the part of the Malian State towards the movements signatory to the Algiers Agreement.
Bamako reiterated this position in a speech delivered by its Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop to the UN General Assembly in New York on September 23.
To the field
However, the Azawad movements, which changed their name to the National Army of Azawad, saw them as "wartime" with the military council in Bamako, and in a statement called on residents of the region to go to the field to contribute to the war effort.
This situation led to several clashes between the two sides: on 17 September, gunmen from the predominantly Tuareg Azawad movements attacked a barracks in the northwestern town of Leri near the Mauritanian border.
The gunmen said they had shot down a Malian army plane that they said had bombed their positions, while the army said it had repelled the attack, admitting that one of its planes had been shot down but did not say it was shot down by Azawad gunmen.
In the Bir region (north), the Coordination of Azawad Movements accused the Malian army of attacking its forces, and the Malian army responded by confirming that 6 of its soldiers were killed and 4 wounded in an attack by "militant" groups, which killed 24 of the attackers.
Azawad has an area of about 820,1 square kilometers, or two-thirds of Mali's 24.1 million square kilometers, but the region is home to only about 3.2009 million people, according to the last census conducted in 8, most of whom are Tuareg and Arab, and represent about 7.<>% of the country's population.
Azawad is separated from the rest of Mali's more fertile territory by the Niger River, which is the natural separation between two regions that are culturally and ethnically and linguistically different, though all of them are Muslim.
Since Mali's independence from France in 1960, the region has witnessed 4 rebellions seeking to secede from Bamako; the first in 1963, and Algeria sponsored 3 peace agreements in 1992, 2006 and finally 2015.
The main objective of the 2015 Algiers Agreement is to prevent the secession of the Azawad region from Mali, and in return seeks to ensure that Bamako ensures the development of the marginalized region, integrating its militants into the security and army forces, as well as in civilian positions.
After the 2012 rebellion, Algeria sought to bring the Malian parties together in dialogues that began in 2013 and ended with the signing of the peace agreement, which did not greatly satisfy the army commanders, especially since it came after they suffered a series of military defeats in 2014.
Nor did the agreement meet the Tuareg ambition for independence and secession from Bamako.
The implementation of the agreement has also been hampered by some stumbling because the two parties differ in reading its content, especially with the desire to dismantle armed movements and reintegrate their members into the security forces and the army, or demobilize them and integrate them into civilian life, and have representation in leadership positions.
The military coup in Mali in 2020 further complicated the situation, and the Coordination of Azawad threatened to withdraw from the peace agreement due to Bamako's failure to implement its provisions over the past years, but Algeria intervened more than once to prevent its collapse.
In February, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune received Azawad leaders and affirmed his country's commitment to the full implementation of the peace agreement, according to MNLA Secretary-General Bilal Ag Cherif, who attended the meeting.
Algeria has recently shown flexibility in the possibility of amending the peace agreement between the parties, given new developments on the ground.
Although the military council announced in August 2022 that it had reached an agreement to integrate 26,<> members of the signatory movements into the army and security forces, the process was proceeding slowly due to disagreement over military ranks.
The interim authorities in the city of Kidal, close to the Algerian border, did not receive the money they were promised, according to The Conversation, and were left alone in the face of strikes by "terrorist groups" after the departure of the French Barkhane and European Takuba forces in 2022.
Balance of power
The military council led by Colonel Assimi Goïta believes that the balance of power in the Azawad region has been disrupted in its favor, and it can move its forces north to position itself in the region and establish its full sovereignty over it, even if this leads to the collapse of the peace agreement with the Coordination of Azawad Movements.
French forces, which had prevented the Malian army from entering some northern cities such as Kidal and Timbuktu to avoid any friction with Tuareg militants, deported in 2022.
UN forces were unable to fill the vacuum of the departure of French and European forces supporting them, and pressure from the military council later led to the beginning of their withdrawal from the area.
On the other hand, the military council has resorted to Russian support, benefiting from providing it with warplanes and combat helicopters.
China has also given the Malian army armored vehicles equipped with appropriate machine guns for counter-terrorism operations, and these weapons have strengthened the military council's confidence in its ability to change the equation of conflict in the region, whether against terrorist groups, armed movements that have signed the peace agreement, or even ECOWAS countries that threaten to use force against Niger's putschists.
On 16 September, the leaders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso signed a tripartite alliance to jointly defend against any party under threat.
Although the message is directed against France, ECOWAS countries and terrorist groups, it is also directed at Tuaregs, who have a separatist tendency in the three countries.
In this context, it is important to recall that armed movements in Azawad have been exhausted in recent months in battles with organizations linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
This situation prompted the military council to seek to fill the vacuum and seek to concentrate its control over the northern region, taking advantage of its air superiority.
However, given previous wars, it is difficult for the Malian army to win the Sahara war against the Tuareg and Arabs, especially if they resort to guerrilla warfare, given their good knowledge of the complex geography of the region, the ease of capturing soldiers who have penetrated into the desert due to thirst and depletion of provisions, or simply being lost in a sea of shifting sand.
A war between the junta forces and the Azawad movements would primarily serve jihadist groups scattered in the north and center of the country, and would revive the Tuareg rebellion in neighboring Niger and even Burkina Faso, and open the way for France's return to the region under the rubric of "protecting minorities", observers say.
The Tuareg are nomadic Muslim people of Amazigh origin and are inhabiting the Sahara desert stretching between Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.