France joins anti-IS airstrikes in Syria, decide 'alone' on targets, PM says
French lawmakers are debating the decision to join a military air campaign over Syria, raising new questions of the value of the US-led bombing of the Islamic State group.
Paris — French lawmakers are debating the decision to join a military air campaign over Syria, raising new questions about what a year of U.S.-led bombing of the Islamic State group has accomplished.
British, Australian, and Belgian leaders are also considering expanding ongoing airstrikes in Iraq to Syria – but critics in all countries are questioning the point of widening a campaign that has failed to stem advances by the extremist organization.
French reconnaissance flights in Syria began last week, and President Francois Hollande said airstrikes there would follow soon. Tuesday's parliamentary debate is not a request for permission – the government needs none – but rather an opportunity to explain its decision before a skeptical audience.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls told Parliament that France will decide "alone" on it targets. He justified the decision to intervene in Syria as "self-defense" against terrorism. France has seen deadly attacks this year linked to Islamic extremists abroad.
The United States, Canada and Middle Eastern allies Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have been striking targets in Syria for months and were recently joined by Turkey. Until now, France, Britain, Australia, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands have only conducted airstrikes in Iraq, where the government has requested help dealing with the IS onslaught, fearing that hitting at IS in Syria would ultimately help the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
For France, the influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Europe has shifted the equation.
"The government wants to be seen as being decisive and doing something," said Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "The beauty of airstrikes is you can decide them readily, you can implement them very quickly and easily, and in media terms they're quite spectacular."
However, he said he doesn't think the French airstrikes will be any more effective than the U.S.'s airstrikes in Syria, which he said "haven't been conclusive."
The conservative opposition in France also warned that airstrikes will not significantly change the situation on the ground.
"Would an air operation, with no regional powers involved and no international mandate, bring a strategic advantage? Clearly, we don't think so", Christian Jacob, head of the conservative group at the lower house of Parliament, stressed.
Valls, however, ruled out any ground intervention.
"The examples in Iraq and in Afghanistan teach us that we would need to mobilize tens of thousands of men who would then be exposed to great danger. And this is incidentally the trap that is set up against us by the Jihadists: forcing us to intervene on their ground to get us bogged down," he said.
Last week the prime ministers of Australia and Britain announced they would resettle Syrian refugees and called for expanding airstrikes to Syria – but they too have faced questions from the opposition.
"What's the objective here? What's the end game? It's not enough to be speaking in sound bites about what an evil organization Daesh is," Australian opposition deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said at the time, using the Arabic acronym for the IS group.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated he'll push for a House of Commons vote on airstrikes on IS in Syria despite opposition by the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
"It doesn't necessarily depend on the views of one person," Cameron said during a recent trip to the Middle East, suggesting he'd push for vote if he believed enough lawmakers would back expansion.
Cameron has said he'd try for a vote when he thinks he can win parliamentary consensus. He was defeated in pushing for airstrikes on Syria in 2013.
Corbyn restated his opposition last weekend, writing in The Observer: "The prime minister will soon again be asking us to bomb Syria. That won't help refugees, it will create more."
It's not clear how adding countries to the list of airstrike partners will change a situation that has not stopped IS from expanding control of territory in Syria.
"A counterinsurgency war is not won in the air," said Claude Moniquet, a former French intelligence agent who now runs a security consulting firm. "Nobody wants to be involved in a ground war in Syria and Iraq because it will drive us to an important amount of losses and nobody wants to be responsible for the body bags which will come back."
Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed.