Francois Hollande’s Quest For A United Front Against ISIS May Be Doomed To Fail
France's President has spent the week trying to forge and agreement on an anti-ISIS policy, but the two nations that matter the most also disagree the most.
While Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, French President Francois Hollande, who visited the United States to talk to President Obama on Tuesday continued traveling the world in what seems like an obvious attempt to assemble some kind of grant coalition against ISIS in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent threats that have gripped both France and neighboring Belgium.
Hollande’s motives in trying to pull together some kind of credible action against ISIS are quite understandable. Prior to the Paris attacks, his poll numbers were quite low and, even though there next Presidential election isn’t until 2017 there was already talk about challenges from within his own party, from former President Sarkozy who may attempt a comeback, or from the National Front‘s Marine Le Pen, who has been gaining in popularly in no small part because of public nervousness over immigration, Syrian war refugees, and terrorism. With local and regional elections set to take place in France next month, the political risks to Hollande personally, and to his party, from what happened are rather obvious, and so far his strong response to the crisis seems to be playing very well domestically. The New York Times noted yesterday, for example, that the attacks in Paris have both increased public support for action against ISIS in the abstract and led to a response similar to what we saw in the United States after the September 11th attacks when many young Americans were motivated to enlist in the military in the hope that they personally will be part of the effort to strike. So, Hollande’s efforts here are consistent with what the French public wants to see, so he’s likely to continue his efforts. How successful he will be, though, is largely out of his hand
On Wednesday, Hollande met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris, and appeared to get some agreement for increased cooperation from a nation that has mostly been on the sidelines so far:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with French President François Hollande in Paris on Wednesday evening to discuss joint action after the recent attacks in the French capital prompted France to request mutual defense from fellow European Union members.
Mr. Hollande urged Germany to do more to support the fight against Islamic State. “If Germany can go further, that would be a very good signal in the fight against terrorism,” Mr. Hollande said, speaking alongside Ms. Merkel duringthe a meeting.
Ms. Merkel pledged to stand alongside France in its fight against terror, signaling Berlin is willing to step up support. “We must act with determination, because we cannot defeat Daesh with words,” she said.
Germany has so far pledged to raise its military engagement in Mali in a bid to support France in its antiterrorism activities in this west African country.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday Germany will send as many as 650 soldiers to Mali and back France—Mali’s former colonial power—in its fight against Islamic State in there.
So far 200 German soldiers have been deployed in Mali to provide intelligence and logistics to the United Nations-led peacekeeping mission.
On Thursday, Germany announced greater cooperation in the fight against ISIS as well:
BERLIN — Germany will join the military campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria by deploying Tornado reconnaissance jets, refuelling aircraft and a frigate to the region following a direct appeal from close partner France for Berlin to do more.
The decision to commit military personnel and hardware is a shift for Germany, which has resisted such direct involvement in the conflict. It has no plans to join France, the United States and Russia in conducting air strikes in Syria.
“Today the government took difficult but important and necessary decisions,” Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters after meeting with lawmakers. “We are standing with France, which was hit by these inhuman attacks from IS.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel promised the support, which must still be approved by parliament, during talks with French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Wednesday.
Berlin expects to commit between four and six Tornado jets, provide satellite support, refuelling planes and a frigate to help protect the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which the French navy has sent to the eastern Mediterranean to support air strikes in both Syria and Iraq.
Henning Otte, a member of parliament for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who acts as a spokesman for the party on defence matters told Reuters that the government aimed to have a draft of the new mandate ready by Tuesday and seek approval from the Bundestag by the end of the year.
The German announcements came on the same day that British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would seek authority from Parliament to expand the British air campaign against ISIS into Syria:
London (CNN) British Prime Minister David Cameron has become the latest world leader to call for an escalation in the fight against ISIS, as French President Francois Hollande continues a whirlwind week of diplomacy to build an international coalition against the terror group.
Cameron, who met with the French leader in Paris Monday, made the case in the British Parliament on Thursday for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, arguing that an expansion of military action is needed to counter “the very direct threat that (ISIS) poses to our country and our way of life.”
Britain needs “to take action now, to help protect us against the terrorism seen on the streets of Paris and elsewhere,” Cameron argued.
His speech is expected to pave the way for a parliamentary vote next week on whether, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, to expand Britain’s military efforts against the Islamist militants.
The UK has been conducting strikes against ISIS on the Iraqi side of its so-called caliphate, but so far has not extended its action to the group’s stronghold in Syria
Hollande’s most important meeting, though, came Thursday night in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been pursuing his own course in Syria since September. The issue of Russia’s actions in Syria was already complicated, of course, by the fact that they have been acting as much to protect the government of Bashar Assad as they have to attack ISIS, if not more. Added on top of that comes the news about the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey and the aftermath that has flowed from that. At least on paper, though, Putin said that Russia was willing to cooperate with the West against ISIS, the only question is what price he demands:
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin late Thursday said he was ready to coordinate strikes against the Islamic State with the United States and its allies but warned that acts like the Turkish downing of a Russian jet could destroy any chance of collaboration.
After talks with French President François Hollande at the Kremlin, Putin said, “We are ready to cooperate with the coalition which is led by the United States.”
It was the most forthright commitment to a joint effort between Russia and the West since Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
But it was far from the declaration of a new grand coalition in Syria, potentially under United Nations auspices rather than American leadership, that Putin has proposed. The deep disagreement between Russia and the West over the future of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not been put aside.
Hollande said France was ready to fight alongside Russia but added, “Of course, Assad cannot play any role in the future of this country.”
Since Russia intervened in Syria two months ago, Moscow and Washington have agreed on measures to “deconflict” their aerial operations there. But as each country pounds its targets in Syria, they have not worked in tandem in any way.
Hollande arrived in Moscow after meeting with President Obama earlier this week. The terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 have led France to step up its operations in Syria and to seek some sort of workable agreement among the foreign powers involved there. The idea has not been warmly embraced by the United States, which has accused Russia of targeting Assad’s foes among the American-backed rebels, rather than the Islamic State.
Hollande said that he and Putin had agreed “to only carry out strikes against terrorists, only against ISIS, and only against jihadist groups.”
“It is important not to strike those groups who are also fighting against terrorists,” he said.
Putin has long argued that the Western powers, Russia and China all face a common Islamist threat, and he has made it clear that he resents what he sees as relative Western indifference to attacks on Russia. He also has suggested that the United States has been negligent in taking the Islamist threat seriously enough.
Putin has emphasized the fight against global terrorism as a means to repair, or at least reestablish, a meaningful partnership with the West.
“Our positions are the same,” Putin told Hollande before they began their private talks. “That forces us to join our forces in fighting terrorists. We are prepared to work with you, Mr. President.”
Hollande said, “I am in Moscow with you to figure out how we can act together in order to coordinate our actions to hit this terrorist group and look for political solutions for Syria.”
Putin’s words notwithstanding, the devil is going to be in the details and the details remains quite complicated. For one, as noted, the Russians will likely remain committed to their desire to protect the Assad regime, or at least some form of it that will be sympathetic to their interests, even while fighting ISIS. Indeed, if you follow Putin’s words since September closely it’s clear that he takes the position that preserve the Assad regime is a key part of fighting ISIS and that the rebels seeking to depose Assad are, effectively, fighting alongside ISIS. The United States, France, and the rest of the West, meanwhile, take the position that there can be no real success in the fight against ISIS as long as the Assad remains in power and continues to wage war not only against ISIS and other jihadist groups, but also against the “moderate” Syrian rebels and the Syrian people themselves. There is, in other words, no consensus on how to wage the fight in Syria and, indeed, seemingly mutually contradictory strategies among the players. As long as that’s the case, the idea of some kind of “grand coalition” against ISIS would seem to be nothing more than a chimera.
Putin’s words also belied by many of the actions that Russia seems to be taking in response to the incident with Turkey earlier this week. Once again, the two nations spent the day yesterday trading insults and, perhaps most importantly, Russia took further steps to cut economic ties with Ankara and threatening further economic retaliation, a step that is more likely to hurt the Turks than it is the Russians. In other steps, the Russians appear to be going ahead with the deployment of the S-400 air defense system in Syria, a version of its deadliest and most advanced such system. As Dave Majumdar notes at The National Interest, this is a development that could have serious implications for the air campaign being waged by the United States and other members of the anti-ISIS coalition given the fact that “only the American F-22, F-35 and B-2 stealth aircraft can operate safely inside a zone protected by the weapon for any length of time.” This leaves open the possibility of an American, British, German, French, Turkish, or other allied aircraft being shot down by a Russian missile, and that would just seem to make the possibility of cooperation all the more unlikely.
President Hollande, then, has seemingly succeeded in getting some commitments from Germany and Great Britain to increase their involvement in the campaign against ISIS. In the end, though, the important players are in Washington and Moscow and until they come to some kind of agreement the idea of a united front against ISIS is little more than a fantasy.