A month ago, ethnic Tuareg fighters seized the northern stretches of Mali as it reeled from a coup, declaring a new state of their own called Azawad. Mali has so far failed to dislodge the rebels, but the Tuareg stab at independence has fallen flat internationally, winning scant support.
The would-be state has been rejected by the African Union, the European Union and the United States since it declared itself. The African Union shuns changing any borders, let alone creating new nations, as part of a pact agreed to decades ago to quash conflict.
"If that door opened, almost every ethnic group might want its own separate state," said Calestous Juma, professor of international development at the Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Africa's road to hell is paved by tribal intentions. Nobody wants another Somalia."
Others have overcome the resistance of the African Union to new nations, most recently South Sudan. But whereas South Sudan came into being after a long civil war and was legitimized by an agreed-on referendum, Azawad emerged from sheer force and the power vacuum following the Mali coup.
Azawad is also seen skeptically because of its ethnic roots. Giving a Tuareg state the African Union's blessing could encourage ethnic minorities in neighboring nations to split away, or allow Azawad to spread into other countries with Tuareg populations.
"If you had a vote today about whether to break away, I don't think they'd [the rebels] win," said William Moseley, a University of Botswana visiting scholar. "It's not even clear if all the Tuaregs support that."
Adding to the wariness are fears that the new nation might not be economically viable, with few sources of food. The deserts may have oil deposits, but experts say it isn't clear how profitable they could be.
Even more worrisome, the Tuareg fighters don't appear to have complete control of the vast area. Though the rebels have tried to distance themselves publicly from Islamists, religious extremists allied with Al Qaeda have swept into northern areas after their takeover, hoisting their black flag over Timbuktu and imposing severe punishments for theft and drinking alcohol.
"What makes it impossible for Azawad to be recognized above all else is this lawlessness," said Bruce Hall, an assistant professor of history at Duke University. "You can't have people calling themselves Al Qaeda running around and get the international community to recognize that as legitimate."
A wave of kidnappings, gang rapes and other war crimes, documented by Human Rights Watch, has also weakened any sympathy the Tuareg rebels might have gotten. The Tuaregs have historically been romanticized in some parts of Europe, but the idyllic image of the "blue men of the desert" hasn't gotten far with decision-makers leery of a conflict they fear could fuel terrorism or hurt investment.
"They've proven exactly what people like me have warned -- that a new state would become a magnet for extremists," Pham said. "It's become the 'Star Wars' bar of the Sahel."
But even if Azawad is unlikely to win world acceptance, it remains unclear how the Tuareg rebels will be stopped. With Mali fending off an attempted counter-coup earlier this week and coup leaders arguing over their agreement to hand over power, the West African nation hardly seems poised to take control.
"My real fear is that at some point it's not going to be up to Mali," said Gregory Mann, an associate professor of history at Columbia University. "There are stronger neighbors who do not like what is happening. It's hard to imagine -- but then all of this has been hard to imagine."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Moussa Ag Assarid, Malian spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, speaks during an April demonstration in front of the National Assembly in Paris. Credit: Pierre Verdy / AFP/Getty Images