• What is happening in northern Mali?

A large convoy of the Malian army left Gao on Monday (October 2nd) for the Kidal region, more than 24 hours' drive from the capital.

Its primary destination would be the localities of Tessalit and Aguelhok, north of Kidal, with the aim of taking control of the camps of the UN mission (MINUSMA).

MINUSMA must leave the country on the orders of the junta. His departure and the return of his camps, starting with that of Ber in mid-August, are considered a key factor in the resumption of hostilities by the separatists.

In the standoff between a multitude of armed actors for control of the territory, the separatists believe that the UN holds must return to their control. The Coordination des mouvements de l'Azawad (CMA) has conducted a succession of operations against army positions since Ber. Its fighters are now gathering in the Kidal region.

• Is Kidal a strategic objective?

The desert region of Kidal is the historic home of Tuareg-dominated independence rebellions, a nomadic and marginalized population whose uprisings have shaken Mali since independence.

The camps in the north are all strategic points on the road to Algeria. But the stakes are also symbolic for Bamako.

The Malian army suffered several humiliating defeats at the hands of separatists between 2012 and 2014, and Kidal's insubordination remains in the throat of the military who seized power by force in 2020 and make the restoration of national sovereignty one of their mantras.

• What capabilities does the Malian army have?

At a time when separatists and Salafists were rising up in the north in 2012, quickly followed by the jihadists, the Malian army numbered only a dozen thousand men, according to a 2013 French parliamentary report.

After ten years of French and European military assistance, then Russian, the number of soldiers is estimated at about 40,000. The private Russian paramilitary company Wagner is said to have several hundred men in Mali.

Enough to convince the junta to try a "gamble" by restarting hostilities against the rebels, according to a Western diplomat. But not enough to control a country already under intense pressure from jihadists.

"The strategic problem of the Malian forces is their lack of resources. Either they suffer, or they carry out dynamic operations that result in raids here and there, that's the maximum they are able to do," explains Jonathan Guiffard, associate expert at Institut Montaigne.

Bamako can count on air assets acquired in 2022, including three Turkish Bayraktar drones, as well as L39 Albatros aircraft delivered by Russia, but whose availability and combat effectiveness remain uncertain.

• What do the separatist forces represent?

There are no credible statistics to measure the actual number of CMAs. "They often lied to boost their numbers (as part of a program to disarm combatants) and hid their stockpiles of weapons," said Marc-André Boisvert, a researcher at the Centre FrancoPaix (CFP) in conflict resolution.

Before the resumption of hostilities with Bamako, "a realistic figure would be 3,000 to 4,000 men," he said.

The organization of these groups, however, allows them to gather fighters for limited periods, and figures of the rebellion launched Tuesday calls for mobilization.

Expert Jonathan Guiffard notes that the CMA must overcome a "inertia effect" of ten years without fighting. "The CMA is less ready than in 2012, but it has the ground to itself, and it is experienced in an asymmetric war strategy," he said.

Doubt remains as to the arming of the CMA. The Kidal region is known to be a corridor for arms trafficking from Libya.

CMA said it had shot down several Malian aircraft since the resumption of hostilities. If the loss of certain devices is certified, the circumstances are not formally established.

• What relations between rebels and jihadists?

The separatist attacks coincide with an upsurge in actions claimed by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

The porosity between separatists and jihadists of the GSIM is little doubt for many observers.

"There is no porosity strictly speaking between separatists and jihadists of the JNIM, but family and tribal ties," said Wassim Nasr, a specialist in jihadist movements at France 24. "Not to mention that a lot of blood has been shed between the two movements and that there is a real struggle for influence and clans in the areas concerned."

The JNIM and related groups have always had their own agenda and chains of command, "with objectives that have nothing to do with those of the CMA components," according to Jonathan Guiffard. However, there is "a fluidity between families, tribes", also notes the expert: "It is a logic of social survival, groups impose political domination and you need to survive too."

With AFP

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