That has not stopped western governments pinning great hopes upon them. The diplomats' ideal solution would have been the rebels' speedy dispatch of the thuggish Interahamwe, the Hutu militias which incited their people to genocide against their Rwandan Tutsi countrymen in 1994, then led them into the UN refugee camps of eastern Zaire where they were remoulded into one great collective cash cow to fund attacks across the border.
But the Interahamwe is proving more of a match for the rebels than the unpaid, corrupt Zairean troops who fled at the first sign of trouble. It continues to manipulate and intimidate its people, now holding hundreds of thousands hostage near Goma, as a shield against all enemies, including, presumably, any outside force.
Diplomats are still trying to get a measure of the rebels "but we just don't know who exactly they are, how well they are equipped or where they are being funded from", said one Western diplomat dispatch to Kigali. "We're in the dark."
There are persistent rumours that an international network of expatriate Tutsis - particularly strong in Canada and the US - helped fund the successful war by Tutsis, exiled in Uganda, against the Hutu-led Rwandan government in the early 1990s.
That network is now said to be supporting Zairean Tutsis - the Banyamulenge - which the Zairean government holds responsible for the rebellion in eastern Zaire. The Banyamulenge, the Zairean government claims, are backed by Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda because they have designs on its territory.
It bases this regional conspiracy theory on long-standing connections between Laurent Desire Kabila, one of the rebel leaders, Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, and Paul Kagame, Rwandan Deputy President and former military commander of the army that won Uganda for Museveni.
But the Banyamulenge Tutsis, while they appear to have been the main players in the insurrection's first success in South Kivu, are not the only force. It is not even certain that they dominate what appears to be a coalition of at least four political groups linked by one factor: a hatred of President Mobutu, who has presided over the complete collapse of Zaire during a 31-year rule.
Kabila, who leads the rebels Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, is not even a Tutsi. A Marxist and life-long successionist, he comes from the mineral-rich Shaba province and fought against Mobutu in the 1960s and in the Shaba uprisings in the 1980s.
In a giant and teetering country, which encompasses at least 250 ethnic groups, Shaba and neighbouring Kasai already operate independently of Kinsasha. Among the rebel soldiers patrolling Goma this week are many non-Tutsis from Shaba, Kasai and Haute Zaire, north of Kivu. Many speak perfect English and some even admit they picked up their language and military skills in the same place - Uganda.
Kabila denies receiving help from Rwanda or Uganda. But journalists and aid workers saw Rwandan soldiers in Goma. Refugees fleeing the conflict say guns flooded in and rebel groups seemed to swell before the insurrection began.
Rwanda has most likely taken advantage of the internal discontent in a collapsing country where money is literally worth less than the paper it is printed on. At the very least, Kagame must be delighted to see the Hutu threat removed from his doorstep, the rebels providing a buffer zone, and the international community at last forced to act. It is hard to believe that such a brilliant military strategist had nothing to do with this outcome.
Whatever the shape of the international force which eventually arrives in eastern Zaire, it seems unlikely that it can rely on the rebels to make its greatest problem - the Interahamwe - disappear. The rebels might win with time, but time is something the refugees are sadly lacking. The Interahamwe stands between aid and the dying.
The international community now faces the problem it shirked two years ago when aid agencies warned of disaster if the Hutu extremists were not separated from the refugees. It was always going to be a difficult task; but it will prove impossible if those sent to do the job are deprived of the right to use force.Reuse content