The United Nations isn’t particularly well known for its victories on the military front, having seemingly long ago resigned itself to only chalking up wins when it comes to providing humanitarian aid and other less visible endeavors. Last month may have begun to change all that as the U.N. aided in the defeat of the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a scenario it hopes to repeat in the coming weeks against a second militia based in the eastern Congo.
October’s military defeat of the M23 movement can be seen as a watershed moment for the way that peacekeeping operations operate. In March, the U.N. Security Council approved a portion of the operation currently on the ground in the Congo — MONUSCO — to be able to take offensive action against rebel groups, rather than passively waiting to defend civilians as in most deployments. The Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) wasted little time in actually moving to take the fight to rebels, working closely with the Congolese army to leverage the brigade’s artillery, attack helicopters, and, most importantly, professionalism in routing the M23.
Now, as experts had previously predicted, the U.N. is turning its sights onto a new target: the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Formed in 2000, with some of its leaders accused of taking part in the killing of 800,000 mostly Tutsi civilians during the Rwandan genocide, the FDLR have cut a bloody swath through the Great Lakes region ever since. Thousands have died at the hands of the FDLR since their founding, with its fighters — made up of members of the Hutu ethnic group — committing atrocities in Rwanda and its neighbors for more than a decade.
It seems that the UNited Nations, fresh off of its M23 victory, is prepared to finally do something about it. Lt. Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz, commander of the nearly 20,000 blue helmets deployed as part of MONUSCO, has thrown down the gauntlet against the FDLR. On Wednesday Santos Cruz said that the FDLR “has one last opportunity to turn themselves in, and if not we will remove them.” A similar ultimatum was given to M23 in July, which was then seen as likely not more than a delaying tactic, putting off the decision to actually launch an offensive against the group. The resulting string of successes against the M23 showed that the U.N. actually had the ability for once to back up its words with action.
So far, the campaign seems to be proceeding well — better than predicted. “The operation started on 27 November, and yesterday and the day before, progress was made to clear areas and streets of FDLR positions,” Special Representative of the Secretary-General Martin Kobler said on Wednesday. The Congolese government has already recaptured a key road from the FDLR, according to Santos Cruz, as fighters abandoned their positions rather than fight back against the 200 UN troops and attack helicopter supporting government troops.
The result has been waves of surrenders from a seemingly demoralized force. “Most of them are young people, 70 percent of them are young people below the age of 30,” Kobler told reporters. “They were not involved in the 1994 genocide so it is easier for them also to surrender to us,” he continued, adding that “a whole platoon every month is surrendering without fighting.” Adding to the reluctance of the armed group to engage, Kobler suggested, is MONUSCO’s recently launched use of unmanned drones to provide surveillance in the region. “This is a deterrent I think to all armed groups,” Kobler said. “If you see the imagery, you can seen from 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) children playing football in a backyard and you can identify the faces.”
Despite early successes, however, it will be difficult to engineer a lasting military victory as clearly as with the M23. While the M23 was composed of soldiers taking part in classic military operations, the estimated 1,800 fighters that compose the FDLR are more guerrilla in nature, striking and retreating into civilian enclaves. In addition, the tactics that the FDLR engage in are difficult to counter through force alone. “Militarily, it’s probably the most difficult armed group to deal with,” Sasha Lezhnev, Senior Policy Analyst at the Enough Project, explained to ThinkProgress in November. “They know the terrain, the jungle, the forests, very well. They have alliances with armed groups … they’re spread out very well.”
Regional dynamics actually work in the United Nations’ favor when combating the FDLR, though, as neighboring Rwanda clearly has interest in removing its threat. The Tutsi-led Rwandan government has seen the FDLR as an existential threat for years, leading to Rwanda invading the DRC in 2003 under the pretext of fighting against the armed group. As the solo approach was less than effective, leading to the need for the Force Intervention Brigade to work with the Congolese army in this most recent effort to eradicate the threat it poses. Depending on how well the campaign against the FDLR moves forward, there’s no shortage of armed groups in the region — including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Mai Mai, and others — who could find themselves as the next targets of the United Nations’ newly confident forces.