How France became America's favorite -- and sometimes only -- shooting buddy.
Britain is out. Germany is out. Turkey is talking tough but giving no indication that it’s prepared to back up its words with action. With the Obama administration hinting that it’s preparing to strike Syria within days, there’s just one country that seems ready to take part in a military intervention: France, a country long mocked for perceived weakness.
White House officials insist that President Obama is still weighing whether to order limited U.S. missile or air strikes against targets within Syria and gave no indication of when he might reach a decision. One thing has become clear in recent days, however. The U.S., should Obama should to intervene, will be acting almost entirely alone.
On Thursday, the British parliament handed Prime Minister David Cameron a humiliating defeat by voting down a motion that would have authorized the use of military force in Syria. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper that Germany hadn’t been asked to part in a strike "and neither are we contemplating it." Turkey, which had earlier expressed a willingness to intervene in Syria without UN approval, has been conspicuously silent in recent days as the prospect of a U.S.-led strike has drawn closer.
France has been the lone exception. On Friday, French President François Hollande told Le Monde that the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus "must not go unpunished" and that France was "prepared to punish" Assad for the strike. Hollande, unlike Cameron, could order a strike without parliamentary approval, and his muscular language suggested he was prepared to do just that.
French participation in a potential Syria strike would be the third time in recent years that Paris was the primary or sole U.S. ally in a military operation the Obama administration was wary of undertaking alone. France has effectively supplanted Britain as Washington’s main partner in limited military interventions around the world. It’s a far cry from 2003, when France’s vocal opposition to the coming Iraq War led angry Republicans to force the House cafeteria to start serving "freedom fries" and "freedom toast" to remove any reference to France from its menu.
France’s muscular new approach was first on display in Libya, when then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy led the push to establish a no-fly zone over Libya and later ordered French forces to fire the first shots of the military intervention there. The French air force, ultimately joined by Britain and the U.S., played a central role in destroying much of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi’s military assets, leading to his ouster and death at the hands of rebel forces.
Mali was an even stronger example. An al Qaeda affiliate and a pair of Islamist allies took control of northern Mali in early 2012, imposing sharia law over cities like the ancient town of Timbuktu and turning the region into a training ground of sorts for militants from other neighboring countries. By the beginning of 2013, the Islamists had pushed so far south that some U.S. officials worried that they’d conquer the entire country. The Obama administration condemned the Islamist push but made clear it had no appetite for a military intervention to stop it.
Enter France. In early January, French airstrikes stopped the Islamist advance in a town called Konna and began driving the militants back north. Hollande ultimately dispatched 4,000 French combat troops to Mali, leading a successful push to re-conquer Timbuktu and the rest of the north and decimate the ranks of the militants. U.S. cargo planes flew French troops and equipment into Mali, but Washington committed no American troops or combat assets, leaving the fighting solely in French hands.
They were more than up to the job. During a visit to Mali this spring, the burnt-out husks of Islamist trucks and command facilities destroyed by French warplanes littered the main roads north. Grateful Malians flew French flags from their homes and cars and erected signs thanking Hollande by name and paying tribute to the first French soldier killed in the operation.
With Britain sitting out any coming U.S. intervention into Syria, France is so far the sole ally signaling a clear willingness to commit military assets of its own so the U.S. doesn’t fight alone. France maintains bases in the United Arab Emirates and Djibouti that could theoretically be used as staging grounds for airstrikes into Syria. With Turkish permission, its planes could also potentially fly from the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey.
Michael Shurkin, an expert on France at the RAND Corp., said France has adopted a unilateral approach to national security and is now willing to use military force without the imprimatur of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the United Nations. It would prefer to work with a broad alliance of fellow nations, but Shurkin says France is fully prepared to fight alone or solely alongside the United States.
"There is no trace of the anti-Americanism of the past," he writes in the draft of a coming research paper. "For the United States and the United States Army, the net result is positive. At a time when all European militaries (including France’s) are reducing their force size and, to at least some extent, questioning their purpose, one of Europe’s largest, France’s, has no such doubts and is more willing than ever to be relied upon to assume significant security responsibilities and work closely with the United States."
France’s muscular new approach reflects the impact of both leadership changes in Paris and the country’s long and complicated history in the Middle East and Africa. Sarkozy, France’s leader at the time of the Libya intervention, was an openly pro-American leader who was more comfortable with the use of military force than his predecessors and who brought his country back into NATO for the first time in decades. Hollande, his successor, is a left-winger who nevertheless believes that events in the Middle East and Africa can have a direct impact on his country. French companies are active across both regions, and France’s relative proximity to the Middle East and North Africa could leave the country vulnerable to either missile strikes from a country like Syria or terror strikes from a country like Mali. Shurkin, the Rand scholar, said he once asked a French intelligence officer why the country cares about the Sahel region of Africa. The officer, Shurkin said, replied that France saw the region as their "Mexico."
Secretary of State John Kerry paid clear tribute to France as he made the administration’s public case for a potential assault on Syria Friday, warmly referring to France as "our oldest ally." New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum noted on Twitter that the last time the U.S. entered a conflict with France on its side but not the British was in 1778, during a war against the U.K. A Syria campaign wouldn’t be anywhere near as expansive, but the dynamics would otherwise be the same. France would be fighting alongside the U.S., and no one else.
Yochi Dreazen was a writer and editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2016.
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