On Nov. 14, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad declared that French support for opposition forces in the Syrian civil war triggered the Islamic State’s terror attacks, which killed 129 people in Paris the previous night.
Assad’s response caused international controversy but the terror attacks have highlighted France’s extensive involvement in the Syrian conflict. France launched airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 27, 2015, a move that the governments of other European countries like the United Kingdom and Germany have yet to legally authorize. France has also been the strongest Western opponent to the idea that Assad should play a role in the Syrian transition process.
France’s hawkish attitude towards Assad and the large scale of its intervention in Syria can be explained by three factors. First, France is using its interventionist foreign policy in Syria and the Middle East more broadly, to reinforce its self-perception as a great power. Second, France is fulfilling its historic role of presenting an alternative foreign policy to that offered by the United States. Third, France regards its steadfast opposition to Assad as an opportunity to enhance security cooperation with anti-Assad Sunni countries in the Middle East, which also share France’s deep distrust of Iran.
Intervention in Syria is connected to France’s aspirations to “great power” status
France’s interventionism in the Middle East is a new development. Much to the chagrin of U.S. policymakers, then-President Jacques Chirac retained business linkages with Saddam Hussein that defied the UN sanctions regime against Iraq, and scathingly opposed the 2003 Iraq War.
France’s relations with Baathist Syria were similarly cordial. French political elites regarded Bashar al-Assad’s takeover in 2000 as a new era for Syrian politics. President Nicolas Sarkozy openly praised Assad for defending the rights of Syrian Christians. French fashion magazine Elle voted Asma al-Assad the most stylish woman in world politics.
The major shift came with Sarkozy’s August 2011 statement that Assad’s actions caused “irreparable damage” to his legitimacy. In January 2012, Sarkozy used the harshest rhetoric of any Western statesman up to that point, demanding that Assad should resign after massacres that caused “disgust and revulsion around the world.”
France then proposed a United Nations resolution to protect Syrian civilians from Assad’s barrel bombs. It also stood alone in support for a military intervention to remove Assad in the wake of his alleged chemical weapons use in 2013.
France’s interventionism in Syria is linked to its deeper embrace of pro-democracy movements. Although in 1990, then-President Francois Mitterrand’s linked development aid in Africa to democratic consolidation, this rhetoric was not meaningfully reflected in French foreign policy until recently.
France’s policies in Libya show how French policy has shifted. France worked to protect civilians from Moammar Gaddafi, and Sarkozy was the first Western politician to support air strikes against Libya if Gaddafi launched air attacks on Libyan civilians or used chemical weapons in the civil war. French airstrikes eventually occurred before the end of a summit with other Western leaders on Paris — a unilateral gesture that caused friction within NATO.
France’s support for regime change in Syria builds on its actions in Libya and confirms France’s desire to be perceived as a humanitarian leader. This interventionism may also affected public opinion in France. As President Francois Hollande remains deeply unpopular, an aggressive foreign policy towards Syria could rally nationalist sentiment and underscore Hollande’s leadership credentials ahead of the 2017 presidential elections.
France wants to present an alternative to the United States
France’s hawkish stance towards Syria contrasts with the reluctance among many U.S. policymakers to expand American involvement in the conflict. This is the latest move in a long history of French resistance to American foreign policy decision-making.
Another recent example is Operation Serval — France’s 2013-14 campaign against Islamic extremism in Mali. While not as openly confrontational as Charles DeGaulle’s withdrawal from NATO and Chirac’s intransigence over the Iraq War, Operation Serval was a unilateral intervention that stood apart from American foreign policy in the region. The success of France’s Mali operation did not go unnoticed by the United States, and the French counter-insurgency strategies have been cited as a potential role model for U.S.-led campaigns against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
France’s willingness to work outside of American leadership, and its rapid military escalation in contrast to America’s incremental approach, has become a signature characteristic of the distinct identity underlying its great power status.
In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, France’s independent streak is visible once again. It escalated airstrikes in conjunction with Russia, a collaboration that the United States has thus far resisted. Putin’s statement that Russia would be willing to support moderate Syrian rebels against the Islamic State is a major victory for the French approach.
Should Sarkozy, who recently called for deeper cooperation with Putin, triumph in the 2017 presidential elections, France will be an indispensable player in Western attempts to normalize relations with Russia. If its efforts are successful, France could supplant Germany as the primary bridge-builder between Europe and Russia, a position that would greatly bolster its international status.
France want an alliance with Sunni Arab states
France’s interventionism in Syria is in solidarity with Sunni-majority states like Saudi Arabia, arguably the Middle East’s leading opponent of the Assad regime, and Egypt, which is concerned by the destabilization caused by the rising power of the Islamic State. France also shares with these countries a deep distrust for Iranian actions in the region.
France’s failed negotiations with Iran on its nuclear weapons program in the mid-2000s cooled relations between the two countries. Chirac warned in January 2007 that an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel would lead to Tehran’s destruction. France also became a refuge destination for liberal opponents of the Ahmadinejad regime.
More recently, the Hollande administration argued that rejecting the Iran nuclear deal could be beneficial for the long-term security of the Middle East, which demonstrates the disagreement between Paris and Washington. This is the context for France’s skeptical response to Iran’s rhetoric about combating the Islamic State and its opposition to Assad, who derives extensive support from Iran.
Deeper security cooperation with Sunni Arab states has also benefited the French economy. France recently redirected two Mistral-class landing ships, destined for Russia, to Egypt. It has also expanded arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
The fruits of this alliance-building are visible in the displays of solidarity with France in Sunni-majority countries after the recent terror attacks.
To be sure, the continued sponsorship of the Islamic State by Saudi private donors remains a point of tension. But France’s escalation in Syria is clearly aimed at mobilizing Arab League states to follow its lead and strengthening its budding partnerships in the region.
In short, France’s hawkish stance towards Assad and extensive involvement in Syria is linked to its ambitions as a great power, its international identity, and its desire to build reliable alliances with Sunni-majority states. The Paris attacks should only push France further in this direction. Its response will likely be continued escalation rather than retrenchment in Syria.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil Student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.