France Asks European Partners to Join Attacks on ISIS in Syria

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A French fighter plane on the tarmac of an undisclosed air base. On Sunday France launched a massive air strike on ISIS' stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.
A French fighter jet on the tarmac of an undisclosed air base. On Sunday France launched a massive air strike on ISIS' stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.Credit: AP

France has invoked the clause in the European Union constitution obligating the other EU member countries to come to the aid of a member who is a target of “armed aggression.” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian invoked the clause Tuesday, in the wake of Friday’s terror attacks on Paris, at a meeting of EU defense ministers in Brussels.

This is the first time France has invoked the clause, but it is unclear what the implications will be, since the EU constitution does not define what the nature is of the “aid and assistance” called for in Clause 42.7 that other countries are obligated to provide at this time.

The declaration is apparently for political and diplomatic consumption and an attempt by the government of France – the most active among European countries against ISIS in Syria and Iraq – to divert criticism at home over intelligence failures prior to the attacks and pressure its neighbors into helping more on the continent, both in intelligence and security, against other attempted attacks, as well as against ISIS in Syria.

The EU constitution stipulates that all its member countries maintain full sovereignty with regard to security; thus, invoking the clause cannot obligate other countries to take specific action. Germany has already announced that the move is a “basis for consultation,” and it does not seem that Germany will take part in bombardments in Iraq and Syria. However, the French declaration may help augment intelligence coordination, which has continued to falter despite the threat to the continent as a whole by jihadists taking advantage of the open borders in the EU to plan attacks in one country and carry them out in another.

The French government is also having difficulty explaining to the French people why France is taking such a key role in bombings against ISIS. Over the past two nights, French fighter jets have carried out strikes of 10 aircraft each over the city of Raqqa in eastern Syria, which ISIS uses as its main base in Syria. France is now sending the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle back to the Middle East to augment its aerial forces there.

France is hoping to present a united front with two other powers operating in the region – the United States and Russia. Perhaps due to the desire to work together with Russia, France has not sought to invoke Clause 5 of the NATO treaty, as the U.S. did after 9/11 in 2001. The NATO treaty clause is considered much stronger than the one in the EU constitution, because it obligates all NATO member states to consider an attack on a NATO member as an attack on themselves.

Russian President Vladimir Putin regards NATO as a threat to Russia and therefore at the moment Russia does not want NATO involved in the fight against ISIS. French President Francois Hollande is planning to go to Washington next week to meet with President Barak Obama, and from there to continue to Moscow for a meeting with Putin. Hollande hopes to be the first to manage to bridge the gaps between the U.S. and Russia over the situation in Syria.

The French had been taking the lead in supporting the demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down as an essential condition for resolution of the war in Syria, a demand that Russia strongly opposes. However, over the past few days, Hollande has stopped mentioning Assad and mentions only ISIS.

One country that might join the battle in the skies over Syria is Britain, whose fighter jets stationed in Cyprus have so far carried out strikes only in Iraq. Prime Minister David Cameron told the British parliament on Tuesday that he intends to put the question of strikes against ISIS in Syria to a parliamentary vote. Two years ago the Cameron government suffered an embarrassing defeat when the parliament voted against air strikes on targets of the Assad regime in Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons against civilians in the outskirts of Damascus. It is still not clear whether this time Cameron will achieve the necessary majority.

For Cameron as well, this is also a domestic political move at the moment. The new head of the opposition in Britain, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a radical leftist, is a long-time opponent of any military action by Britain and is now demanding that action be taken only if the U.N. Security Council approves it. Cameron wants to achieve two political goals – painting his rival Corbyn as a wild ideologue who is not willing to fight radical Islam and at the same time, to foment rebellion among a large number of Labour MPs who oppose Corbyn’s line so they will vote for the strikes in Syria.

However, even if Cameron attains the required majority, it does not seem that British involvement will be decisive. The Royal Air Force is at a new low due to ongoing budget cuts and can only send a few dozen fighter planes to the Middle East. At the moment it has only eight old Tornado aircraft in Cyprus, which can carry out no more than four strikes a day. It is hard to see how expanding British action to Syria will tip the scales against ISIS, which in any case has been able to withstand American air strikes for the past 18 months (with negligible support from a number of Western and Arab countries).

The country now carrying out the largest number of air strikes every day in Syria is Russia, which three months ago sent some 40 fighter jets and helicopters to its base in Latakia, northwest Syria. But even the Russian strikes have so far been aimed against rebel groups fighting directly against the Assad regime, with ISIS mainly a secondary target. Since the Russians have entered the fray, American sorties have declined, apparently out of concern over a possible aerial clash with Russian planes.

Only at the beginning of this week did the Americans pick up their rate of strikes, in cooperation with France. For the first time since the fight against ISIS began, the Americans hit oil tankers, a main source of revenue for ISIS, on roads in Syria and Iraq. For the past month, the U.S. has not had an aircraft carrier in the area due to training and maintenance assignments, and only on Tuesday did the aircraft carrier Harry Truman set out from Norfolk, Virginia to once again expand U.S. forces in the region.

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