Syrian missile strikes Macron’s most significant military action

French president keen to limit risk of retaliation and preserve Russian relations

Operation Hamilton: Rafale fighter jets prepare to take off for Syria on Friday night, from a military base in eastern France. Photograph: ECPAD/French Military via Reuters

Operation Hamilton: Rafale fighter jets prepare to take off for Syria on Friday night, from a military base in eastern France. Photograph: ECPAD/French Military via Reuters

 

French participation in strikes against three chemical-weapons sites in Syria in the early hours of Saturday morning marked the most significant military operation ordered by President Emmanuel Macron since he took office, in May 2017.

France fired 12 of the 105 missiles that struck the installations. Operation Hamilton, as the French called their part of the joint operation with the United States and United Kingdom, involved six ships and 17 aircraft.

Mr Macron launched the attack from the Élysée Palace at 3am, surrounded by his closest advisers. A statement issued by the Élysée said: “There is no doubt about the facts and the responsibility of the Syrian regime. The red line set by France in May 2017 has been crossed. Our response was limited to the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capacity . . . We cannot tolerate the banalisation of the use of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and for our collective security.”

François Delattre, the French ambassador to the UN, said France could not “let the genie of proliferation out of the bottle”, adding that Damascus “reached the point of no return” in the April 7th attacks on Ghouta. The US, UK and French strikes must “restore the absolute ban on chemical weapons, which is engraved in the marble of international conventions”, Mr Delattre said.

Mr Macron said he had two main concerns in striking Bashar al-Assad’s regime: to limit the risk of retaliation by Assad’s Russian, Iranian or Lebanese Hizbullah allies, and to preserve relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Syrians had nearly a week to evacuate the sites, so the western coalition could be almost certain there would be no casualties. They were also careful to give a wide berth to Russian forces in Syria. In the event the attacks were merely a symbolic slap on the wrist.

Operation Hamilton: Emmanuel Macron (third right) with ministers and military advisers at the Élysée after France’s joint strikes with the US and UK. Photograph: François Guillot/EPA
Operation Hamilton: Emmanuel Macron (third right) with ministers and military advisers at the Élysée after France’s joint strikes with the US and UK. Photograph: François Guillot/EPA

After repeated consultations with President Trump and the British prime minister, Theresa May, Mr Macron telephoned Mr Putin at noon on Friday. The French defence minister, Florence Parly, said Russian forces were warned. “No cruise missiles fired by the US and its allies entered the zone of Russian air defences protecting their installations at Tartous [naval base] and Hmeimim [air base near Latakia],” Ms Parly said.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left movement France Unbowed, was the most strident critic. “The French president aligned himself with the US in lamentable fashion,” Mr Mélenchon told an anti-Macron rally in Marseilles. “If he has proof [of a chemical attack], let him show us.”

The French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, will justify the attack before the National Assembly at 5pm on Monday. There will be no vote after the public debate.

Nine French Scalp cruise missiles were fired from Rafale aircraft, and three MdCN cruise missiles, naval variants of the Scalp, were fired from the Aquitaine frigate in the eastern Mediterranean. The total cost of the 12 missiles is estimated at €16 million.