France’s existential loneliness in Syria
US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all American ground troops from Syria, revealed by a tweet on Wednesday, was an early Christmas gift to authoritarian rulers and war criminals in Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus. Not only does Trump’s unilateral move threaten to tie the hands of Washington’s allies in the Middle East, particularly the Israelis and Kurds, but it will also tie the hands of America’s Western allies who seek to continue the war against ISIS.
In no European capital was the reaction to Trump’s declaration swifter and sharper than Paris. Key government ministers quickly pushed back against Trump’s assertion that the American military mission in Syria—the defeat of ISIS — had been achieved. In a series of tweets, Florence Parly, the French army minister, allowed that ISIS had been seriously weakened by the allied military intervention. But that, she continued, was not at all the same as its enduring defeat.
“Daesh has not been struck from the map,” she declared, “nor for that matter has its roots.” No doubt with Trump in mind, Parly warned: “It is essential to militarily and decisively defeat the remaining pockets of this terrorist organization.”
Echoing Parly’s alarm was her colleague Nathalie Loiseau, the minister for European affairs. In a radio interview on Thursday morning, Loiseau declared that despite the gains made against the ISIS, they were not yet defeated. “The fight continues, just as France’s leadership will continue.” Though the cabinet’s most seasoned and influential figure, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, had not publicly commented as of Friday morning, he had made no secret earlier this week of the West’s strategic stake in Syria. On Tuesday, as if sensing something in the wind, Le Drian insisted that retaking what remained of ISIS-controlled territory was an “absolute priority,” along with “stabilizing” these zones once they were liberated.
A glance at the map reveals the reason for Paris’s sense of urgency. While Trump’s base sees the seven-year conflict in Syria as a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing, French officials see war-torn Syria as a mess steaming right on Europe’s doorstep. This geographical proximity has, of course, facilitated the passage of the thousands of European jihadis who have gone to Syria to fight with the ISIS, as well as the return trip many have since made back to their countries of origin. No less critically, this proximity has also compounded the influx of Syrian refugees desperate to reach safe haven in Europe.
While there is never a good time for a geopolitical crisis, especially one sparked by your principal ally, Trump’s announcement arrived at a particularly bad time for French President Emmanuel Macron. Overwhelmed by a still early winter of popular discontent, embodied by protest movements ranging from the gilets jaunes through students to the national police, the French president has troubles enough at home. While domestic strife and deepening unpopularity have led French emperors (Napoleons I and II) and kings (Charles X) to distract the French with foreign adventures, Macron does not have this option. Though his party, La République En Marche!, holds a comfortable parliamentary majority and he still has nearly three years remaining to his term, Macron has little choice but to focus on France’s economic and social travails.
Nevertheless, the withdrawal of American ground forces makes Macron the commander of what will become, by default, the largest Western force engaged in Syria. Or, at least, what observers assume will be the largest contingent: while French officials acknowledged in 2016 the presence of French boots on the ground in Syria, they have revealed neither their precise number nor location. In March, the Turkish press agency Anadolu reportedthat some 70 French soldiers were serving as advisors with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria. Marc Hecker and Elie Tenenbaum, senior researchers at the French foreign-policy think tank Institut Français des Relations Internationales, told FP there are in fact about 200 members of the French special forces. Still, when asked at his April press conference with Trump about French participation in Syria, Macron managed to sound both vigorous and vague. “We have decided to augment our contribution to the coalition,” he remarked, “and we remain completely committed to the struggle against Daesh.”
Confirmation of the presence of French solders in Syria came, oddly, from James Mattis. Meeting with congressional members in late April, the then secretary of defense revealed that France “just reinforced us in Syria with special forces here in the last two weeks.” In light of events over the past 24 hours, it is ironic that Mattis also insisted that the American forces in Syria were there for the long haul and promised a “re-energized effort.” With the announcement of Mattis’s resignation, not only are the SDF and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) left dangerously exposed, but so too is Macron’s public commitment to these groups. In late March, the French president welcomed an SDF delegation to the Elysée Palace. Though photographs were not allowed to mark the occasion, Macron told the gathered Kurdish representatives that France was “fully engaged” at their side and vowed to work with the international coalition to increase France’s role.
Quite suddenly, the internationalism of the coalition has shrunk, confronting France with geopolitical and existential challenges. In the wake of Trump’s announcement, Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, tweeted that it “shows how wrong it is that we do not have a defence force able to help stabilise our immediate neighborhood.” This failure has not been for lack of trying in Paris. In early November, Macron called for the creation of a “true European army.” Citing Trump’s scorn for the postwar liberal order, shaped by American support for multilateralism and mutual aid, he declared that such a force was needed as a shield against not just Russia, but also the United States. Only a European force, Macron insisted, can “protect the Europeans.”
The problem, at least for those unfortunate Europeans who are not French, has been the abiding fear that such an army would be little more than a Trojan, or rather Gaullist, horse—a platform for the projection of French strategic goals. Ever since Charles de Gaulle midwifed the birth of the Fifth Republic in 1958, France has championed strategic autonomy as a European goal. This push, as one analyst drily notes, has fed fears that “France would love to commit the EU to a Gaullist turn, pushing it to sever the transatlantic link while bolstering French influence.” What Europe must now consider, though, is what they must do when it is Washington, not Paris, busily severing transatlantic links.
For the French, this question has an existential edge. Last week’s attack in Strasbourg by the jihadi Chérif Chekkat, as Nathalie Loiseau tersely remarked, served as a reminder that France’s war against ISIS was far from over. Since January 2014, it is estimated that some 1,700 French citizens have joined ISIS, with slightly more than 260 since returning to France. The situation poses a dilemma for French authorities. While most returning jihadis have been jailed, their prison stays are often little more than refresher courses in Islamist radicalism. Those who have been or will soon be freed—according to the newspaper Le Figaro, nearly 400 will be out of prison by the end of 2019—are usually carded as “fiche S,” the controversial identification system used by the Interior Ministry to track potential terrorists. Though Chekatt was listed on the fiche S, he nevertheless succeeded in evading police surveillance and murdering four people at the Christmas market in Strasbourg.
There is, as Hecker and Tenebaum point out, yet another infernal wrinkle to this matter. During the battle for Raqqa, Kurdish forces captured several dozen French jihadis, along with some 150 children. Among those captured and held are Thomas Barnoin and Adrien Guihal, who have played key roles in the recent surge of French jihadism. As a result, the Kurds might well use them as means, if only by threatening to release them, to exercise diplomatic pressure on France to maintain its military engagement. At the same time, however, the American military retreat leaves the way open for Turkey to move into Kurdish-held territories, thus placing French troops between a rock and a hard place.