France in Syria: under pressure

François Hollande has turned France into the United States's chief ally in the fight against ISIS. There are perils in this strategic choice.

Francis Ghilès
14 December 2015

After the Syrian uprising took shape during 2011, there was much confusion in Europe about how to react. Eventually, in the wake of François Hollande's election to the presidence in May 2012, France became the first western country to recognise the Syrian National Coalition as the “unique representative” of the Syrian people, and thus to break decisively with Bashar al-Assad’s government. This was very much Hollande’s own decision in tandem with his foreign minister Laurent Fabius (whose other twin hatreds are Russia and Iran).

In the event this “moderate” opposition failed to deliver and ended ever more marginalised by the growing strength of jihadi groups, including the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). The latter claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks of 13 November, whose death toll of 130 far exceeded the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket murders in January, as well as the assaults on the French capital's transport network by Algerian jihadis in 1995.

The French president has repeatedly called for al-Assad’s removal, while Fabius went so far as to speak of eliminating the Syrian leader. Hollande's hard line, which was followed by his peers in London and Washington, has slowly come unstuck - the turning-point being August 2013, when Syrian government forces crossed the “red lines” established by Barack Obama and used chemical weapons to attack citizens. French planes were ready for take-off on a punitive expedition when first, the House of Commons in London voted down prime minister David Cameron's motion to take military action and second, Obama’s decision to consult Congress killed any chance of a quick response. Hollande felt betrayed, if not ridiculed. The Syrian president was freed to pursue his murderous assaults on his people, pushing millions of them to take refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

The eventual outcome of these strategic choices is seen in the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s decision to enter the Syrian war on the side of his ally, al-Assad. In seizing the initiative from a surprised Paris and Washington, the Russian president's game-changer left Hollande with no practical option but the least bad one. This was to condemn both Assad's murderous regime and ISIS, while responding to the Paris atrocities by intensifying French airstrikes on ISIS-held redoubts in Syria.

Francois Hollande began his presidency as a career politician who had virtually no knowledge of international affairs, in particular the Middle East, and was known for his dislike of confrontation. The last three years have seen his transformation into a commander-in-chief who is not unduly worried by sending guided missiles or special forces to eliminate targets in faraway lands. “Vos guerre, nos morts” was a much quoted slogan circulating on French social networks after Paris. The French constitution in no way obliges the head of state to seek the approval of parliament before going to war, in contrast to what has now become the rule (if not codified) in the United Kingdom.

France's missteps over Syria have not been helped by the absence of any in-depth discussion among political representatives of the country's foreign policy under François Hollande (and indeed his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy). This is all the more striking as any decision which affects the Middle East and north Africa has many domestic repercussions. The most recent example is the recruitment by by ISIS of “fighters” who are French, and not always Muslims by birth. France has the largest community of Muslims in Europe, and its foreign policy should take into account possible reactions from its own citizens more than was the case a generation ago. Constant talk of fighting Islamic extremism, and of bombing radical groups in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Mali, risks creating an atmosphere in which young French people might fear that Islam itself is under attack.

The unease about French policy in Syria is visible on social networks, but not confined to them. It has been growing in recent months in the president’s own Socialist Party, and has also been present from the start among some of France’s most respected diplomats. The latter were aghast at the lack of concern Sarkozy showed towards the prospect of chaos in Libya which, they thought (rightly as it turned out), was likely to follow the elimination of Muammar Gaddafi. A growing number now calls for an alternative policy towards Syria, rather than an intensified military involvement.

The second-round results of the regional elections on 13 December, when the Front National failed to secure any victories in the second round after being blocked by tactical voting, will not themselves lead to any change. In any event the FN's views on Syria are both quite pro-Assad and fanatically pro-Putin. It is weird case of "les extrèmes se touchent". That said, those who vote FN do not do so for the party's foreign-policy outlook.

The cheerleader's dilemma

The debate on western policy is bound to grow, but whether it will be clarified is anybody’s guess. After visiting Moscow, Sarkozy - who has ambitions to return to power in the 2017 presidential election - advocated a shift in policy. This echoed the comments of Hubert Védrine, the respected socialist and former foreign minister, who recalled the choice of democratic countries in the second world war to ally with Stalin against Hitler.

In the short term a complete reversal of the anti-al-Assad policy seems unlikely. But under the force of circumstance western policy may have to focus on defeating ISIS while downplaying subsidiary goals. Whatever his decision, François Hollande is going to have to explain his foreign policy to the French people in far greater clarity than he has deigned to do so far, or risks losing trust.

The contest of recent events is also one where France’s internal intelligence agency (DGSI) is having to shift from its police methods to an intelligence-led approach to get on top of what is a growing threat. French intercept capabilities come under the external intelligence service (DGSE) and are not as easily directed against terrorists. In London, the two sides of intelligence learned to work much closer together following the bombing of the underground system in 2005. The situation in France is aggravated by the lack of qualified personal needed to investigate suspects, the bombastic statements of senior politicians, and the decision to remove independent-minded magistrates who had specialised in terrorism and hand more power to the intelligence service.

This sad state of affairs was criticised in a biting interview with France’s top investigative magistrate, Marc Trévidic, published on 30 September in the weekly Paris Match. He warned of impending attacks, saying that “dark days lie ahead of us. The real war ISIS intends to carry to our land has not yet started.” From a technician of counter-terrorism, these words are all the more prophetic in light of the assaults of 13 November.

French politicians want to have powerful intelligence services which they can control. By ending magistrates' power over (for example) arrests of suspect they have increased the risk of extra-judicial killings. That would bring France into line with the American use of drones and security forces to eliminate hardline Islamist, which have done nothing to diminish the risk of terrorism - quite the contrary.

Under the leadership of François Hollande, France has become America’s number-one ally in its fight against ISIS, its cheerleader-in-chief. The president has put his country, which is much easier to hit than the US (the San Bernardino attack notwithstanding), squarely in the terrorist firing-line. The next few months will tell whether Trévidic’s fears are further justifed. Meanwhile France, and Europe, need to recalibrate their policy in Syria as a matter of urgency.

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