Fact-checking the recent M23 escalation

After a month of relative calm, fighting resumed between the M23 and the Congolese army on August 21. The fighting took place around 15km north of Goma, around the town of Kibati. The M23 held the high ground on either side of the road going north from Goma toward Rutshuru. Yesterday, August 30, the M23 announced that they were withdrawing their troops from the frontline toward Kibumba to the north.

Who started the fighting and why?


According to United Nations and diplomatic sources, the M23 launched the attack against the Congolese army. This is based on reports provided by United Nations troops, who are on the frontline. But fighting has been ongoing north of Goma since at least July, when the M23 attacked the outskirts of this town of half a million, and throughout the past eight months of peace talks in Kampala the Congolese army has continued to nettle the M23.

The reason behind the escalation is more difficult to parse. Most likely, the M23 is worried about the lack of progress in peace talks in Kampala, which have been stalled for many months now. There is a certain urgency about the fighting, as well: the UN Intervention Brigade is almost fully operational, and the UN drones will soon be patrolling the skies, as well. So the best guess is that the M23 is trying to force a compromise in Kampala. If that is true, then their withdrawal to Kibumba is a blow to them––as long as they threatened Goma directly, the M23 had real leverage.

Who has been shelling Rwanda and Goma?


Since August 22, a series of artillery shells have fallen in Goma and Rwanda, killing civilians on either side of the border. (The Rwandan government chronology of events is here.) The UN has now told the press that at least some of the mortars that fell in Rwanda came from M23 positions. According to one UN official in Goma I spoke to, their troops could observe the trajectory of the mortars.

Given that some of the fighting at Kibati took place within one kilometer of the Rwandan border, it is possible that other mortars were Congolese army mistakes. For the mortars that fell in Rubavu town in Rwanda, however, that would be unlikely, as these landed behind FARDC positions. Here, it was either a case of FARDC firing into Rwanda on purpose or they came from M23 positions.

In the case of Goma, where the majority of the fatalities have occurred (seven compared with one in Rwanda), most accounts from the UN suggest that these were M23 mortars––some UN troops have seen or heard the mortars flying overhead. In some of the cases, it is difficult to imagine that the M23 mistakenly hit populated areas, as there were no military installations in the line of fire.

What has the UN been doing?


In the past week, there have been many mentions in the press of “the UN’s most robust peacekeeping mandate.” While this is to a certain extent hyperbole––the UN blue helmets in the Congo have always had part of a Chapter VII mandate, and have always been able to use deadly force to protect civilians in imminent danger (and in the case of Ituri in 2005 the UN has gone on the offensive in the past); the current mandate just makes it explicit that that means taking offensive action.

But the UN force certainly has a lot of expectations weighing on it, in particular on the 3,000-strong Intervention Brigade. After fighting began and mortars hit Goma, the population took their anger out on the UN, trashing vehicles and claiming the UN was idling standing by while civilians were being killed. One demonstration on August 24 turned violent, and two protestors were killed––some claim the UN is responsible for this.

This is certainly a low point of UN popularity in the Congo, but the recent fighting may change this. Over the past ten days, the UN has engaged its air force, artillery, and infantry in the fighting against the M23. The Intervention Brigade did much of the fighting, but other contingents (Egyptian, Jordanian, Indian, Nepalese) were also involved. There is a good UN summary posted here (h/t Timo Mueller). To give an idea how heavily the UN stepped in, on August 24 UN attack helicopters fired 216 rockets and 42 flares on M23 positions in Kibati. Meanwhile, South African snipers have killed at least six M23 rebels, according to the South African government. The UN also suffered their first casualty at the hands of the M23, a Tanzanian peacekeeper killed by a mortar shell.

The UN’s robust response is in part due to the new mandate and the Intervention Brigade. In part, it may also be due to the new leaders of the UN mission. The new Special Representative of the Secretary-General (i.e. the head of the mission) Martin Kobler (Germany) arrived in the country in August and has distinguished himself already by visiting an FARDC field hospital close to Goma. A new Force Commander, General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz (Brazil) also recently arrived.

Has Rwanda supported the M23 in the fighting?

Rwanda’s support to the M23 had decreased early this year, leading the UN Group of Experts to issue much milder criticism of Rwanda in its interim report in July, and foreign donors had unfroze most of the aid suspended last year. However, recruitment by the M23 in Rwanda has continued throughout, as evidenced by Human Rights Watch and UN reporting.

The most recent fighting appears to have triggered renewed Rwandan support to the rebels, according to UN and diplomatic sources. According to one such source, the M23 launched an attack on FARDC positions in the night of August 22/23, leading UN military observers to believe that the M23 had night-vision equipment. The UN mission has also reported to the Security Council that Rwanda has provided such support. A diplomat told me that his country, a Security Council member, had also confirmed Rwandan support to the M23 in the recent fighting and had spoken with authorities in Kigali about this. According to the same source, most important donors in Kigali were on the same page in this regard.

This means that Rwanda’s recent threats to invade the Congo (tanks and troops were deployed on Friday to the border) due to the cross-border shelling is not likely to receive much sympathy from their donor allies. Whether these donors, however, will act on their beliefs, however, is another matter. Given that the M23 has now withdrawn to the north and fighting has at least temporarily ceased, that escalation is unlikely to take place.