Four days after the launch of a rebel offensive in Chad aimed at toppling President Idriss Deby, calm has returned to the capital NDjamena. The rebels announced they were temporarily pulling back in order to give the population the opportunity to leave the capital. Following fighting that left dozens of civilians dead, thousands more were fleeing into neighboring Cameroon on Tuesday. The French military has been evacuating its own citizens and other Europeans, including the German ambassador to Chad. The first airplane touched down in Paris on Monday, and on Tuesday French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that France could intervene to support the Chadian president.
"If Chad was to become a victim to an aggression, France would have -- conditionally -- the means to oppose such an act," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Tuesday, commenting on the apparent stalemate between government forces and the rebel forces who have withdrawn to the outskirts of the capital. Sarkozys warned the rebels, France is ready to do its duty."
The French president described the Debry regime as a legitimate government, which was formed following a decision at the polls. Despite the fact that human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the oppressive regime and questioned the value of the elections that have taken place since Deby's takeover in 1990, Sarkozy adopted a position of principle: One does not take power with arms -- in no region of the world.
Sarkozy's new commitment to the acting government underlines the dilemma the French are facing in Chad: On the one hand the former colonial power wants to maintain neutrality, yet it leaves no doubt that it would rather support the regime in NDjamena then accept a takeover by at least three different rebel groups from southern Sudan. "The French army is not there (in Chad) to take up arms against whoever that might be," Sarkozy said, commenting on the third onslaught of rebel forces in recent years, but now France had a legal basis for an eventual intervention since now there is a legal unanimous decision by the Security Council. The French leader was referring to a non-binding decision of the highest United Nations body on Monday, which condemned firmly the attacks perpetrated by armed groups against the Chad government.
Cooperation Treaty between France and Chad
However, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had stressed that France has no intention of immediately stepping up military operations, especially as the situation seemed calmer on Tuesday even as the civilian population continued to flee. "If you want to make me say that we will go to war against the rebels, I'm telling you, no."
But Timane Erdimi, the leader of one of three rebel groups, still accused France of supporting Chads President Deby -- who also happens to be his uncle. The French military presence alone, said Erdimi, supports one of the most corrupt regimes in the history of Africa.
Paris did indeed at least passively support Debys putsch in 1990 by telling French troops deployed there not to intervene. Paris long stayed true to the French-trained pilot, even though it soon became clear that Debys regime engaged in terror and torture. When the former colonial power finally distanced itself from the dictator, he was able to hold onto power with flowing oil revenues. It was only since Deby got involved in the conflict in Darfur at the urging of former allies that his regime has come under pressure from rebel groups based in southern Sudan.
France is sticking strictly to its bilateral agreements during the latest hostilities -- at least thats the official line. And that means providing logistical help and reconnaissance. Beyond that there are apparently other wide-ranging military treaties. According to the independent French information service Rue89, the defense treaties stemming from when Chad gained independence in 1976 were afterwards replaced by military-technical cooperation agreements. The main difference to the previous commitments is the rules of engagement for French troops: The French military personnel serve within the armed forces of Chad in either uniform or as civilians. They must not under any circumstances be part of war operations, including actions to restore law and order.
The Role of Military Advisors
Despite these strict criteria, French soldiers have at least indirectly been involved in the conflicts plaguing Chad -- the last time was in April 2006 when the air force flew over the rebel lines to relay information about their location and strength to government troops. Even if the agreements in the 1970s limited cooperation, the aid and training unit DAMI (Détachement dAssistance Militaire et dInstructions) effectively provided military reconnaissance and protection for the regime. "Settled at the top of the hierarchy in the armed forces of Chad, the DAMI advisors formed a parallel chain of command, reported Rue89. It allowed France to either leave the leaders in power or to exchange them.
Besides that contingent of military advisors there is supposedly a secret agreement for maintaining order in effect allowing Frances president to intervene when requested by his African counterpart. A type of life insurance or guarantee for the regime, commented the experts from Rue89, who first exposed this secret deal in July 2007. That agreement allows the leaders of the countries in question to ask Paris for help in extremely difficult situations -- although its up to France to act or not.
As President Deby's regime gained new confidence on Tuesday and refused to hold any talks with the rebels, his French counterpart Sarkozy still faces a dilemma that newspaper Le Figaro has described as "The Chad Trap." Should Paris willingly aid the oppressive regime in NDjamena? Or fail to do so and risk a further destabilization of the region?