Few would dispute that the French have compelling military intelligence on Syria due to historic and strategic reasons, but their data on Iraq is limited – considerably inferior to that of the United States. Paradoxically, Paris will not intervene in Syria to oust Bashar al-Assad, a move President Francois Hollande was pushing for last August before he was thwarted at the last minute by his US counterpart, Barack Obama. Now France says it is ready to take part in the US-led air strikes against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Iraq. So what has changed?
For several months, facing ISIL’s rapid expansion, Hollande and his minister of foreign affairs, Laurent Fabius, frequently made reference to last year’s backtracking on military intervention in Syria, which they consider one of their greater policy failings. They believe the Russians took advantage of Obama’s perceived lack of resolve to act decisively – not only in Syria but also in the Crimea.
That’s why the French now feel obliged to participate in the US-led initiative against ISIL, even though France was in a better position militarily to take action in Syria due to their superior military intelligence in the country. Paris will now be forced to rely on US intelligence and to receive and execute orders from Washington.
French public opinion
The average French citizen is sceptical about French military adventures abroad. Mali may have been a success but French efforts in the Central African Republic were not. The inconclusive result there has dampened public opinion for a new military engagement in the Middle East. Above all, any involvement in the Arab world increases the fear of terrorist acts on French soil.
Bitter feelings linger over what’s seen as France’s missed opportunity to take action in Syria last August. This means France is now wary of playing second fiddle to the United States. Nor does it want to be lost as one player among the 30 countries who are ready to support (to varying degrees) the military operation in Iraq.
Notwithstanding the scepticism of the French people, there are some domestic political calculations behind France’s willingness to take part in the intervention in Iraq. Let’s consider Hollande’s plummeting approval ratings – he has scored 12 percent in recent popularity polls. Perhaps he reckons that a bold international move could demonstrate his leadership skills to the electorate. After all, his inability to lead from the front is the major criticism levelled against him these days.
Complicating matters, somewhat, is the changing landscape in the region. The context in Syria has radically altered in a single year: Strikes against Assad’s forces have become strikes against Assad’s enemies, as the West and Assad appear to be fighting against the same menace, ISIL. Hollande has expressed – albeit discreetly – his opposition to any initiative in Syria that could be interpreted as indirect support for the regime in Damascus.
Bitter feelings linger over what’s seen as France’s missed opportunity to take action in Syria last August. This means France is now wary of playing second fiddle to the US. Nor does it want to be lost as one player among the 30 countries who are ready to support (to varying degrees) the military operation in Iraq.
The Conference for Iraq that took place in Paris on September 15 serves as a gentle reminder to all concerned that although Washington has taken the lead on the war against ISIL, it was Paris that was leading the call for air strikes in Syria last year.
In response to Russian criticism about the absence of a UN resolution, this assembly of international players has also reinforced the notion that military intervention will only take place at the request of the Iraqi government.
The participation of many Arab countries in the conference also underscores the Franco-US shared vision, whereby Arab cooperation is a prerequisite to any military intervention in Iraq.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Paris has long harboured ambitions to be viewed as a diplomatic broker for Middle East issues. France is well aware that its fleet of fighter jets – six Dassault Rafales, one KC-135 Stratotanker and one Atlantic plane – based in the Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates are hardly sufficient to grant France special status in joint military operations. In effect, France is trying to compensate for its military inadequacy by playing a stronger diplomatic role, by hosting platforms such as the conference on September 15.
France’s position in Europe is another factor in the equation. France seeks to play a leading role among European countries in the international diplomatic arena. It was illustrated by its attempt in Mali to eradicate al-Qaeda-linked extremists.
The idea was and still is to convince the countries of the European Union to contribute to a common effort against a common enemy. This might raise eyebrows given the deteriorating state of the French economy, particularly when compared to the bullish health of its German neighbour.
But recently the French have shown that they still retain an edge over Germany in the arena of international and collective defence.
Germany made a crucial decision in sending sophisticated arms to the Kurds in northern Iraq. For the first time since World War II, Germany’s involvement in a Middle Eastern conflict as a sovereign state – unlike Afghanistan where Berlin acted as a NATO member – opens a wide door to the necessary intensification of Europe’s military presence outside its borders.
In this perspective, France’s main ambition is to champion the awareness campaign in Europe against the threat of extremism, or what French media calls “djihadism”. For now, the fates of Europe and the Middle East are entwined; both are threatened by a terrible combination of extremism and obscurantism. France’s action in Iraq is part of a global strategy against extremism. From Mali to Iraq, fighting extremism is a necessity to protect democracies from the new threat represented by ISIL. France wants to show that nation-states cannot be destroyed by trans-border violence.
Christian Makarian is deputy editor of the French weekly magazine L’Express. He is a columnist on Middle East and European affairs.