In Paris aftermath, a revived appetite in Europe for military missions

Britain's Parliament will vote today on a proposal to join the US-led military campaign against Islamic State in Syria. Germany is prepared to send troops in a support role.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters/File
Police guard the Houses of Parliament in London, November 14, 2015, in a show of heightened security following the attacks on Paris. Britain’s Parliament is holding an all-day debate Wednesday, Dec. 2, on whether to approve air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.

When President François Hollande told the French parliament, days after terrorists killed 130 diners and concertgoers here that “France is at war,” he set a new bellicose tone for an entire continent that is feeling the creep of conflict on its doorstep.

After years of military cuts and an inward gaze as conflicts raged abroad, Europe is now showing signs of a shift toward a war footing. The confluence of homegrown terrorism, a rush of refugees fleeing Middle East conflicts, and Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine has lent a sense of urgency to a political debate about Europe’s role in safeguarding the relative peace that prevailed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, Britain’s Parliament is holding an all-day debate on whether to approve air strikes against Islamic State in Syria. The German cabinet approved plans Tuesday to commit 1,200 soldiers and six Tornado reconnaissance jets to the US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria; German lawmakers are expected to approve the proposal by the end of the week. The non-combat mission would become Germany’s largest military deployment since its troops joined NATO’s Afghan mission.

France’s Mr. Hollande is now widely viewed here as a wartime president – dubbed François “Homeland” – while his country rallies around him in a surge of patriotism of the kind the US saw after 911. France has already deployed its warplanes to bomb Raqqa, the headquarters of the self-declared Islamic State, the terrorist group behind the Nov. 13 attacks. And it froze planned military budget cuts, which means that for the first time in decades troop levels are set to rise.

This has all happened as countries in the eastern part of the EU that were formerly under the Soviet yoke are ramping up defense spending in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Some like Lithuania even moved to reinstate a draft.

“What has happened in the last two years or so is the idea that security issues matter, and that security issues will come find you whether you want it or not,” says James Strong, a fellow in foreign policy analysis at the London School of Economics. “The Russian incursion into Ukraine and the Syria crisis together has concentrated minds somewhat.”

A British turnaround

British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to win the vote later today, and if he does, air strikes in Syria could begin within days. 

That will mark a turnaround for Britain. Although the country sent warplanes to bomb IS in Iraq, lawmakers voted in 2013 not to do so in Syria, after the regime in Damascus used chemical weapons against rebels. Today’s parliamentary motion is drawn more narrowly and frames the proposed air strikes on IS as part of a broader strategy that includes political and humanitarian aspects. 

Charles Lichfield, an analyst at Eurasia Group in London, says he believes Cameron is seizing an opportunity for his country’s reengagement in Syria. “You have a temporary window that Cameron is using to reassert the UK’s role in the world,” he says.

While Germany will not join air strikes or commit to troops in combat, its willingness to deploy its military in support of the US-led campaign packs a symbolic punch for a nation deeply scarred by, and suspicious of, militarism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel enjoys broad political support, except from the Green and Left parties, to send troops to the Middle East, even if society remains cautious.

Matthias Müller-Krey, a corporate speechwriter in Berlin, says he, for one, has conflicting feelings. “As Germans we are hesitant to go to war for historical reasons, sometimes too hesitant,” he says. “Part of me thinks that someone has to do something, but I thought the same about Afghanistan and that intervention didn't have much of an effect.… Everyone wants to stop terror but no one knows the right way it can be achieved.”

Still, German opinion may be shifting in favor of military intervention because both the attacks in Paris and the refugee crisis ­– Germany has taken in nearly 1 million refugees and goaded other countries to reciprocate – have spun the political wheel. “Germany has lived under the illusion for a long time that stuff in the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t really affect it, and now it does,” says Thomas Risse, professor of international relations at the Free University of Berlin. “So in that sense German foreign policy and German domestic politics are now really intermingled.”

Cuts in defense spending

Nowhere is this intermingling stronger than in France, which has been struck by two attacks this year. France spends $33 billion a year on its armed forces, the second-largest military budget in Europe after Britain. Still, France has steadily cut its expenditure on defense since the end of the cold war. Indeed, among NATO members in Europe, only Britain, Greece, and Estonia have been meeting the alliance’s benchmark of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.

Following the Nov. 13 attacks, France’s Ministry of Defense website in charge of recruitment saw the average number of requests for contact triple from 500 to 1,500 per day. The military is expecting applications to rise in 2016 to 170,000, compared with 120,000 in 2014. 

Major Rémy Hémez, a defense analyst and active member in the French Army, notes that external operations like France’s 2013 intervention in Mali aren’t the main draw. “It’s more so the threat of something closer to home that motivates them the most,” he says.

Élie Tenenbaum, a research fellow at IFRI in Paris, says it’s the first time since 1982 that France’s operational forces are set to grow, from 66,000 personnel in 2013 to an expected 77,000 by 2017.

Solidarity and challenges

France last month invoked an article of a EU treaty for its first time calling members to its side to fight the terrorist threat in France. “This can potentially open a new chapter for Europeans,” says Joerg Forbrig, transatlantic fellow for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “It may well be a step in the direction of a much closer security cooperation than we have seen so far.”

This adds to solidarity, though fraught, in the EU’s response to Russia. “Europe managed to have a synchronized response to Russia’s incursion in Ukraine that could qualify as hawkish,” Mr. Lichfield says. “For once they had a unified foreign policy.” 

Still, challenges are strewn across the road ahead. However much France wants to fight back, “France won’t turn into a huge military power overnight,” says Mr. Tenenbaum. 

And although Europe’s reaction to terrorism is strong, its entry into the Syrian conflict raises new risks. British and French militaries would be operating in contested airspace with competing interests and unclear political goals. Such challenges could quickly sour public opinion.

“In the fog of war and with the emotion of what happened in Paris, all of these inconsistencies are being [glossed over],” says Lichfield, “but I think they will come back.”

*Rachel Stern in Berlin, Colette Davidson in Paris, and Alexis Xydias in London contributed to this report.


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