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Does France Have the Firepower to Fight the Islamic State?
The French military has long been waging the war against terrorism. But without help from its allies, France won’t be able to hold the line much longer.
“France is at war,” President François Hollande announced in an address to the French Congress just three days after Friday’s coordinated attacks in Paris claimed by the Islamic State.
Though French authorities meted out some very strong rhetoric and action in response to the attacks in Paris, the fact is France was already at war with jihadi terrorist organizations. Since early 2015, France has been engaged in three significant military operations, all directly connected to the terrorist threat. (There is a fourth operation still ongoing in the Central African Republic though not directly related to the fight against jihad.)
The first, Operation Sentinel — which includes 10,000 French troops stationed throughout France protecting the country’s sensitive sites, in particular religious ones –was first deployed immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. Another, Operation Barkhane, involves 3,000 troops deployed across five African countries in order to prevent the formation of transnational terrorist cells, in particular in southern Libya. Finally, Operation Chammal, which carried out this week’s strikes in Raqqa, involves about 1,000 French military servicemen and servicewomen engaged in operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Even before these ongoing operations, France engaged in multiple (and significant) military operations with the strong belief that a targeted, and sometimes risky, use of military force, including on the ground, could achieve significant outcomes and actually make a situation better. Accordingly, France deployed 4,500 troops on the ground in Mali in early 2013, managing to defeat an Islamic insurgency’s raid to the country’s capital and stabilize the country without getting stuck in a lengthy quagmire. France did so again in December 2013 in Central African Republic.
After the Paris attacks, Hollande announced on Monday that the intensification of airstrikes against the Islamic State would continue over the next weeks. The upcoming deployment of France’s lone aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which departed Toulon on Nov. 19 and will be stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Charles de Gaulle will be, in the temporary absence of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Gulf, the only Western one present in the region, and will triple France’s airstrike capability from 12 to 32 jet aircrafts.
The added strain that the intensification of military operations against the Islamic State is now putting on the French military may be stretching it beyond long-term sustainability. Therefore, what will become crucial to the success or failure of this endeavor over the next few weeks and months will be the degree to which France receives sufficient support from its allies and partners.
For France, some of the more significant challenges of continuing and even intensifying these operations have to do with resources — both financial and political. Other obstacles involve the very nature of these new tasks assigned to the French military, in particular at home where it is expected to carry missions now closer to those of the police and gendarmerie. This is where the homeland deployment of French troops — which is only likely to be extended further after the Paris attacks — becomes a vital and long-term question. The deployment of some 10,000 soldiers at all times actually requires the mobilization of 21,000 — as forces have to rotate regularly to allow rest and training. So, if France is to remain engaged in a “traditional” war abroad (in the Middle East and in Africa), can it also maintain security and a robust, less traditional military presence on French soil?
France certainly is committed to these operations; Hollande announced his decision to cancel all job employment cuts in the Ministry of Defense until 2019 — a move that will save about thousands of jobs (mostly in active duty, cyber operations, and intelligence). This comes after the decision to not make 23,000 cuts earlier in 2015 following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. With these cuts, France is going to increase significantly its defense budget in the next few years — in addition to the 3.8 billion euros (about $4 billion) announced in April 2015 — even if that implies transgressing EU budgetary rules. As Hollande said strongly on Monday: the “security pact prevails over the stability pact,” referring to the EU package of rules imposing that public deficits don’t go over 3 percent of GDP.
And though Hollande is keeping the funding spigot on, there is a limit to what France will be able to achieve on its own. And certainly it shouldn’t — as the Islamic State doesn’t pose a threat merely to France, but to all of Europe.
This is why, in a very symbolical gesture, Hollande said Monday that France would publicly ask support from the European Union and its member states through the activation of the EU mutual defense clause. It provides that EU member states to provide “aid and assistance by all the means in their power” to the member state under attack. This is unlikely to trigger a European-led military operation against the Islamic State or to overcome existing divisions among member states — in particular with Germany — about the use of military force in Syria. But individual member states, such as the United Kingdom, may at least do more. Europe must make the demonstration that it values military action, in conjunction with more traditional EU foreign policy tools such as diplomacy and aid — which surely also have a role to play in the current crisis.
It is true that France’s military campaign against the Islamic State has so far had a limited impact — at least compared to the frequency of air strikes conducted by the United States and Russia, which launched its first air strikes in late September. But it is still among the strongest militaries contributing to the U.S.-led coalition, and certainly the strongest one among those European countries involved.
But, even an enhanced use of airpower is unlikely to provide the means necessary to defeat the Islamic State militarily and to hold the territory it currently occupies. Very few in France today support sending French troops to perform on-the-ground missions — ones that arguably should be executed by forces in that region. But local stakeholders are all busy focusing on different enemies and therefore are not willing to unite forces to combat the Islamic State. The absence of ground troops therefore means that defeating the Islamic State will be a long enterprise.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State will have time to strike again in Europe thanks to a large army of foreign fighters willing to die for the so-called Caliphate. The burden carried by the French military is therefore unlikely to lighten in the near future, in addition to the fact that the absence of a political transition in Syria involving the removal of power of President Bashar al-Assad will add up to the difficult task of fully defeating the Islamic State, militarily and politically.
In fact, there will be no defeating the Islamic State without bringing an end to the Syrian conflict altogether. Assad’s repression against the Syrian people has been a root cause for the Islamic State resurgence in Syria and its foreign fighters recruiting narrative. Only a political transition will therefore ensure that Syrians can finish the Islamic State off. France did hope for a long time that the United States would commit additional forces to achieve that very objective by forcing a political transition in Damascus. Washington did not, hence opening a vacuum that Moscow ended up filling in support for Assad’s regime. Russia’s intervention unexpectedly reopened a window for negotiations, on Moscow’s terms. But it has also had, to put it mildly, mostly negative effects for France, fueling the flow of refugees fleeing Syria for Europe and encouraging foreign fighters to join the cause of the Islamic State.
In the triangular game going on between the United States, Russia, and France, the recent Islamic State attacks — in Paris and in the Sinai against a Russian airplane — have clearly altered Paris’s and Moscow’s calculations, but not the American ones. U.S. President Barack Obama has made it clear that the United States is unlikely to significantly alter its Syria strategy despite the clear setbacks that the recent terrorist attacks represent. Hence Hollande’s decision to try to reengage Russia in order to bring it to play a stronger military role within the Western coalition against the Islamic State in exchange for a compromise on the parameters of a political transition in Damascus. This will be the terms under discussion next week when President Hollande travels to Washington and then Moscow to try building the “large and unique” coalition against the Islamic State he called on in his speech to the French Congress on Monday.
France’s strong long-standing commitment to fighting jihadi terrorism in Europe’s neighborhood is in the fundamental interest of both European countries and the United States. Military action is certainly not the only tool required to address this threat and won’t solve its root causes. It may even fail to prevent further terrorist attacks, something about which Europe can do more about by designing more collective counterterrorist tools (such as a sharing framework for airline passenger records, for instance). But the Paris attacks leave few other options to France to continue its efforts, imposing on its military a burden that national resources by themselves will not be able to sustain in the long term. France has already secured an enhanced bilateral cooperation with the United States. France’s European allies have many capabilities and resources to contribute to assist it, and they should.
ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images