France alone will choose its targets in Syria, "but it is out of the question that our airstrikes help strengthen the regime of Bashar al-Assad," prime minister Manuel Valls told the National Assembly on Tuesday, as French air operations shifted from reconnaissance missions to bombing raids on Islamic State (IS).
President François Hollande announced on September 7th that France was extending its "Operation Chammal" from northern Iraq to Syria. The reason, Mr Valls said, was that chaos in Syria was "destabilising the entire Middle East" and "the jihadist threat against France comes from zones under IS control".
The prime minister said 1,880 French citizens or residents have joined IS, of whom 491 are now in Syria and 133 have been killed. He blamed the Assad regime for the deaths of 80 per cent of the 250,000 Syrians killed in the past four years.
It was necessary to take the air war to Syria “to better identify and locate IS, to be able to strike it on the ground in Syria, in legitimate self-defence under Article 51 of the UN charter,” Mr Valls said.
Several speakers objected to operations without a UN Security Council resolution. The communist deputy, François Asensi, said that "by going it alone in Syria, France hurts prospects for a large coalition against IS, by excluding the Russians".
Operations without UN approval were illegal under international law, Mr Asensi said.
of main opposition party Les Républicains accused the Hollande administration of inconsistency and questioned the utility of bombing.
“Will an exclusively air operation, without ground troops, without an international mandate, without the mobilisation of regional powers, bring any strategic benefit in the long run?” he asked. “We think not. What is your priority? The departure of Bashar al-Assad? Or the defeat of IS?”
In keeping with Gaullist tradition, France is determined to maintain its autonomy in all military ventures. Operations, however, are being “coordinated” with the US-led coalition, Mr Valls said.
France has deployed 12 Rafale and Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers, an Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft, a C135 tanker aircraft and a frigate against Islamic State.
Some conservative politicians, military officers and academics argue that IS cannot be defeated without a ground invasion.
“I have heard voices pleading for such an option,” Mr Valls said. “And if so, how? France alone? Intervene with Europeans? But who among them would be prepared for such an adventure? With the Americans? We must learn the lessons of the past.”
Mr Valls said a ground offensive would place tens of thousands of soldiers in great danger. “That is the trap set for us by the jihadists: force us to intervene on the ground so we get bogged down, so they can invoke a so-called ‘crusader spirit’ and create solidarity over an alleged ‘invasion’.”
If regional countries formed a coalition to fight IS, “they would enjoy the support of France,” Mr Valls said. But “it can only be a long struggle.We are at the beginning.”
The rise of IS has led many to consider the Syrian dictator the lesser of evils. “Bashar al Assad is a big part of the problem. He can in no event be part of the solution,” Mr Valls said. “With a man responsible for so many deaths, war crimes and crimes against humanity, no compromise is possible.”
Mr Valls called for the creation of a transition government combining opposition forces and "the least compromised elements of the regime". He warned Russia that "all military support to the Assad regime only feeds the spiral of violence".
France will talk to Sunni Arab governments, Turkey and Iran, Mr Valls said. Mr Hollande will receive the Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, in November.
French leaders appear to believe they can persuade Tehran to end its unconditional support for Mr Assad. “Tehran must weigh positively in favour of a political solution,” Mr Valls said.