The crisis in Mali took a decisive turn on Friday when French warplanes struck at positions in the north of the country held by Islamist forces. One French pilot was killed in the operation along with an estimated 100 Islamist fighters. The operation, launched in response to pleas for assistance from Mali's government following the capture of the strategically vital town of Konna by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist forces, tipped the battle in favor of Mali's struggling security forces.
The French foray into the conflict has provided a major boost to government efforts to wrest control of the northern region of Mali from "terrorist elements," and has in an instant ended the debate about when and how Western forces should intervene. French President Francois Hollande stated that the increasing power and control of the militants in the northern region of Mali, which includes the historic city of Timbuktu, gave the terror groups a base from which they can attack northern Africa and Europe.
The conflict between hard line militant Islamist groups and Mali's transitional government was reignited last April following a coup-d'etat by a group of mid-level military officers, creating a political crisis which rebel forces took advantage of by seizing key population centers in the north.
France has historically maintained a level of influence in Francophone Africa, where it is the former colonial power and continues to maintain a number of military bases and forces. The last major intervention of French forces in West Africa was in April 2011, when French troops and tanks supported forces in Ivory Coast who were aiming to oust embattled leader Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to relinquish power after losing the national election. The military action in Mali doesn't have a timetable attached to it, and Hollande has vowed that France will support Malian troops for "as long as necessary."
The Mali intervention is the first projection of power on the continent by Hollande, who was quick to assert that the action was both necessary and legally sanctioned by UN resolution passed in December that called for the deployment of an African-led intervention force. ECOWAS, the 15-member group of West Africa states, announced that it would begin the deployment of that intervention force on Monday, following the French operation and Western pressure to speed up the deployment.
The French decision to act came as international consensus converged on the need to decisively address the growing power of the Islamist forces in the region sooner rather than later. The concern stems from the connection officials say exist between Tuareg rebels and other Islamist groups, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the regional network of al-Qaeda operating in northern Africa.
French reluctance to intervene in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Seleka rebels who claim to have been marginalized by the government continue in their advance in the north of the impoverished country. CAR ministers have previously and publicly sought French military assistance push back the rebels.
The coming weeks will test the international community's tolerance for rebel activity in the north: will a complete defeat of the militants be sought? How long will France remain militarily involved? Even with UN support, to what extent will the US become involved and what precedent does this set on the continent and in other "failing" states? Mali may well be the first in a long line of conflicts this year in which these questions will persist.