What Is France Doing in Syria?

Both ISIS and Assad have blamed the Paris attacks on French foreign policy. So what is that policy?

The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has been deployed to the Persian Gulf. (Claude Paris / AP)

After Friday’s attacks in Paris, two sides that don’t usually agree on anything found common ground on one issue: Both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS said the attacks were retaliation for France’s own foreign policy.

In a statement translated by SITE, ISIS said:

Let France and those who walk in its path know that they will remain on the top of the list of targets of the Islamic State, and that the smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign, and dare to curse our Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, and are proud of fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes, which did not help them at all in the streets of Paris and its rotten alleys.

Assad, meanwhile, criticized France for backing rebels against his regime; the attacks, he argued, showed that he and France were in the same predicament. “Wrong policies adopted by Western states, particularly France, towards events in the region, and its ignorance of the support of a number of its allies to terrorists, are reasons behind the expansion of terrorism,” he said.

But what exactly is France doing in Syria and elsewhere in the region? As The Guardian notes, France has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the Assad government throughout the civil war that has engulfed the country. Assad is battling scores of groups that seek to topple his regime, including ISIS, other Islamist groups, and militias backed by Western powers. France’s military efforts against ISIS have developed gradually over the course of the last 15 months—spreading from limited sorties in Iraq to include missions over Syria and the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.

On Sunday, according to Le Figaro, French planes “massively” bombarded the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. The Wall Street Journal reports that the United States and France have increased their cooperation on intelligence in Syria since Friday’s attacks:

The U.S. is expanding intelligence sharing with France and has agreed to speed the delivery of detailed targeting information in support of possible French retaliatory strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, officials said.

France began airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq in September of 2014; as the Financial Times noted, it marked the first time France had launched a direct military intervention in the Middle East since helping to patrol a no-fly zone over Iraq prior to the American invasion in 2003, which France pointedly refused to join. The first French strike, which came within 24 hours of President Francois Hollande saying his country would join the air campaign, demolished a weapons depot and reportedly killed dozens of militants. French planes also began flying reconnaissance missions and delivering humanitarian aid. In authorizing these strikes, Hollande insisted that France’s involvement would be strictly limited. “We will only intervene in Iraq,” he said.

Since then, France has reportedly launched some 200 strikes in Iraq. The French task force is centered around the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which is currently stationed in the Persian Gulf. According to AFP, French air capacity in the region includes 21 Rafale fighters, nine Super Etendard fighters, and some Mirage jets. (By way of comparison, the U.S. says it has launched nearly 6,400 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.)

Meanwhile, the French have seen some mission-creep. A year to the month after commencing airstrikes in Iraq, France began flying missions in Syria as well. “In Syria, so long as we haven’t found a political solution; so long as we haven’t destroyed this terrorist group, Islamic State; so long as we haven’t got rid of Bashar Assad; we will not find a solution,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told Christiane Amanpour in September. In October, French strikes hit an ISIS camp in Raqqa, rumored to be housing foreign fighters including French nationals. Last week, French officials said planes had struck an ISIS-controlled oil refinery in Syria.

It’s worth noting that the ISIS statement translated by SITE makes no explicit mention of Syria. The French military has been heavily involved in operations against Islamist militant groups outside of the Middle East over the last few years, including one group that has pledged fealty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph. France has deployed 3,000 troops to West Africa—a region where they’ve historically had great influence, as a colonial power and otherwise—with a presence in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ivory Coast. The fight in Mali has centered on al-Qaeda affiliated militants, but in Nigeria and surrounding countries, France has been the Western nation most invested in fighting against Boko Haram, the brutal Nigerian Islamist organization. Earlier this year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. For radicals inclined to view Western fighting against Muslim groups and nations around the world as part of a larger crusade, France’s military deployment in Africa may be lumped together with its involvement in the Levant.

Of course, the statements from ISIS and Assad shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value; whatever drove the Paris attackers to commit their horrific acts is certainly more complex and varied than the French government’s conduct in the world. Within France’s own borders, a long and acrimonious debate has been playing out over the role of Islam in the republic, raising the question, as Shadi Hamid phrased it in The Atlantic, of how liberal democracies can come to terms with religious illiberalism. Meanwhile, the first attacker to be named after Friday’s violence was Ismael Omar Mostefai, who was born and raised in France.