In France, a cautious government faces public appetite for strong action.
The Russian intervention is strongly criticised in Paris. Together with the UK, Germany and other key members of the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS), France has urged Russia to put an end to its attacks against the opposition and the civilian population. And when Putin was in Paris just after the UN General Assembly, Hollande insisted both privately and publicly that the strikes must target solely IS.
But the Russian move has sparked domestic discussions. France’s position on Assad is bipartisan, and was as strong under Sarkozy as it is now. Yet some have supported Putin’s decision as an opportunity to prioritise between two enemies, and to consider fighting IS with Assad with analogies to the second world war and the alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler having started to emerged. The significant pro-Russia streams in France have weighed considerably in this conversation.
Yet, even though Paris is willing to keep a constructive approach towards Moscow in general, the government points that in Syria, it is Assad and not IS who is responsible for most of the victims of the conflict, and for most of the refugees’ departures too. Diplomats also add that Russian strikes have rather reinforced IS, for instance in the Aleppo region, which reveals a Russian strategy aimed at eradicating any third party between Assad and the terrorist groups more than anything else. This official stance remains widely supported among the political class and by the French public. A recent poll shows that 75 percent of the public believe Putin is wrong in supporting Assad and 72 percent have a poor opinion of the Russian leader.
Still, this disapproval does not make for an effective response to the situation created by Russia. What can France do in the face of the new balance of power created on the ground by the direct military support Putin brings to Assad? Though Paris’ perceived insistence on delegitimising Assad is sometimes ridiculed by experts or political figures, the French official position does not rule out talking to Assad. Paris does support, for instance, the UN-led talks that have been under way for years. It also acknowledged that any political transition will need the participation of some elements from the regime. But the point is that Assad cannot be part of such a transition, if only because, as Hollande put it at the UN General Assembly, you cannot have the victims and the executioner working together.
But Paris has not yet been able to organise a comprehensive response. Its position insists on the protection of civilians, especially against the regime’s gruesome use of barrel bombs. It also includes supporting the opposition, whose very existence is key to the prospect of any political solution. But while waiting for a window of opportunity to get back to the option of a transition in Damascus, Paris has mostly raised its profile in the fight against IS.
For months, France had distinguished between strikes in Iraq, which were meant to help a government bound to implement an inclusive political process, and strikes in Syria, which entailed the risk of fuelling further radicalisation and of playing into IS’s narrative of an alliance of so-called “crusaders” against Sunnis. Yet, last month, France led its first strikes against IS on Syrian territory, with the explicit goal of combatting terrorist threats against French interests.
Commentators and NGOSs alike have questioned the legality of these strikes, both by international standards, and by domestic ones given some targets appear to be French nationals recruited by IS. But such concerns do not resonate strongly with the public who, it would appear, rather regretted the limited nature of this military action. Some prominent political figures have even called for ground operations against IS, a perspective that is broadly supported by the French public even if it is far away from the government’s plans. This underlying concern about the IS threat is hardly surprising given that France was hit again in January 2015 by terrorist attacks, and French nationals are well represented amongst jihadist groups in Syria.
The recent Foreign Affairs Council of the EU in Brussels led some in the media to point to European disunity on Syria but so far there is little discussion in France about this. There used to be a time when Paris believed that it was for France to rally around its fellow EU partners when some bold and united European response was needed to an international crisis. But, in spite of its direct link with the refugee crisis, Syria is another example of the scepticism that nowadays reigns in Paris about the costs and benefits of such an effort.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.