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M23 Consolidating Control over the Rutshuru-Goma-Masisi Triangle

Having captured Goma, and claiming to hold Sake, what will M23's next move be?
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Eastern Congolese seeking refuge in Goma before M23 captured the town earlier this week. Photograph by Marie Cacace/Oxfam.

The M23 rebel group has consolidated its control over key locations in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, and has subsequently mobilised to capture Sake, 25km west of Goma. On November 22, the Congolese Army (FARDC) launched a counter-offensive near Sake from Minova. Both sides currently claim to hold Sake.

According to social media, Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) have been spotted supporting the M23 at Sake, confirming that Rwanda is still supporting the group despite calls for a ceasefire in a joint communiqué. While M23's advance has been slowed at Sake, likely further reinforcements by RDF troops would give it a strategic advantage over the FARDC.

While M23 has claimed it aims to capture Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, the group is more likely to first move west from Sake towards Masisi, where it has usually enjoyed considerable support and would be able to cooperate with local Mai-Mai militias. A key indicator for an M23 deployment towards Bukavu would be further attempted counter-offensives by the FARDC from the south, which would force the M23 south to meet them. Additionally, an outbreak of violence by the M23-allied MCC rebel group in Uvira (south of Bukavu) would be another indicator that M23 intends to deploy south and join up with the MCC in a coordinated assault on Bukavu.

Any mobilisation towards Bukavu is very likely to be met with strong resistance by both the FARDC and other armed groups, especially the ethnic Hutu FDLR and other Mai-Mai militias that are opposed to M23, particularly around Kalehe and Kabare territories (as well as Shabunda territory, which does not lie on the Goma-Bukavu route).

Despite M23 claims to the contrary, it is very unlikely that they would attempt to march towards the capital Kinshasa given the logistical challenges and distances involved. Instead, if an assault on Bukavu is unsuccessful, M23 is likely to take the time to consolidate its control over the Rutshuru-Goma-Masisi triangle, a traditional stronghold of the CNDP (from which the M23 was largely formed). A successful FARDC counter-offensive would only be likely with support from rival armed groups or the United Nations MONUSCO mission (currently unlikely as its mandate has not yet been strengthened) or alternatively if Rwanda suspends military support to M23 (also unlikely). We assess that as long as M23 receives RDF support it will retain a strategic advantage over the FARDC and its allied proxy groups.

In the currently unlikely event of a defeat of M23 by FARDC, the rebels would be likely to retreat north towards its stronghold in Rutshuru, and possibly the Virunga Mountains. Attempts to dislodge them from this position would raise the risk of collateral damage to natural resource operations. Whilst we do not expect M23 to deploy far enough south to directly affect mining assets, disruption to operations in the area will become more likely as competing armed groups seek to increase rent from mines to boost their position. Mining operations in Katanga are very unlikely to face risk of disruption due to the relative stability of the province.

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This is the best article I have seen to date on the latest conflict in the Eastern Congo.  The critical strategic objective is Rwanda's not the M23's or anybody else's.  It is the Masisi Plain and what it would give Rwanda, economically and culturally.  My years of working in the Congo and my previous career in military intelligence tell me that you know the hows and whys of this situation and have alluded to them well in this article.  Keep up the good work.   LeRoy M. Coleman, Colonel, USAF, (Ret.)