Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tip-toeing Toward the Quagmire

France will begin bombing in Syria soon. Thus far its military intervention against Daesh, or ISIS, has been limited to Iraqi territory, largely for fear of aiding the Assad regime in Syria. Why has Hollande suddenly changed his mind on that point?

One reason is obvious: the massive influx of Syrian refugees is a problem that Europe cannot handle. To humanitarians, the initial--and rather heartening--German welcome transformed Chancellor Merkel overnight from the villain of the Greek drama to the heroine of the refugee crisis. But in the eyes of many fearful Europeans, her kindness sent the wrong message, encouraging even more Syrians to leave. And European governments showed no great eagerness to help the Germans out by accepting assigned quotas of immigrants. Now even the Germans have backtracked, more rapidly than one would have thought possible.

Hollande therefore seems prepared to take the risk of attacking Daesh in Syria in order to stop the migration at its source. The more quickly ISIS is eliminated, he seems to believe, the more likely potential refugees will be to judge the risks of emigration greater than the risks of staying put. But this calculation runs up against the perverse logic that has bedeviled Syrian policy from the beginning. Any move against Daesh strengthens Assad, whom no one wants to maintain in power--no one, that is, except the Russians and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who apparently supports the Russian position. (A rundown of the attitudes of various French politicians toward the escalation in Syria can be found here.)

Indeed, it is questionable at this point whether any intervention by outsiders can stanch the flow of refugees from Syria. The social fabric has been destroyed by years of civil war. The skilled, the educated, anyone with means and many without--all have fled the war zones. It is hard to see what can be built on such ruins. And Assad's forces have claimed more victims than Daesh, even if the latter's ideology is more rebarbative in Western eyes.

Still, I think that the severity of the refugee crisis will push Europe toward a more forceful intervention, of which the French bombing is only the first step. Villepin may be right to say that military intervention failed to do much good in Iraq and Libya and undoubtedly contributed to the godawful mess in Syria, but the refugees will create domestic pressures on Europe to intervene, and it is an ominous sign that four prominent members of Les Républicains, including one presidential candidate (Le Maire, who may seem mild-mannered but is bidding fair to become the French John McCain with his aggressive stance on the Middle East), favor sending in ground troops. I am not at all sure that we will not see European boots on the ground in the very near future, under President Hollande.


Alexandra Marshall said...

I am surer than you, Art, that we will indeed see French boots on the ground. Hollande has gotten a bump every time he's militarily intervened. He's desperate and flailing. Out of a simple wish to appear masculine, decisive and in control, I bet you they send in ground troops before Christmas.

Meanwhile the refugee crisis is heart-sickening and also catnip for the FN. See the recent exaggerated flap about "78,000 units of social housing going to migrants," which of course is a distorted figure. This plays into every racist, NIMBYist impulse on the French populist right. We're headed for a political car crash over this issue.

Remember when we thought Europe was a force for good in the world?

Massilian said...

Far too much psychology and not enough strategy. The military knows for sure that no Western country has the necessary means and numbers to fight on the ground in Syria. It would me a matter of years and 100 000 soldiers... It won't happen. Not before Xmas, not after. Hollande or no Hollande.

ZI said...

It must be said, here and everywhere else, that such intervention "on the ground" is simply beyond the means of the french military.

It's a physical impossibility. Where would they find the planes and the boats to send the tens of thousand troops in Syria? During "Serval", US heavy lift capabilities were critical and the whole affair would have been impossible without US support.There's no a chance Obama is going to support an intervention on the ground in Syria.

Where would those troops come from? There's "Barkhane", a massive operation across the whole sahara desert from Mauritania to Tchad; there's "Sangaris" in RCA, french forces deployed in Ivory Coast. At best, the french could find a few thousands more by stretching to the limits. Beyond that, it would be a major and unsustainable effort.

And what would they do there? Stuck between what's left of the syrian army and ISIS? Not to mention that these groups are no pushovers. They will fight tooth and nails for every inch of ground they give up.

As for coalitions, why would Lemaire thinks it would be more any more succesful in Syria than in Afghanistan?

The whole discussion is insane and entirely disconnected from reality. Le Maire, as secretary of state for european affairs, was quite happy to declare "that there were no military solution" in Afghanistan while french soldiers where fighting and dying on the orders of the government he supported. He now finds a "military solution" for Syria. Yet on other shining exemple of the moral rectitude of the french political class.

bernard said...

I too would be quite surprised by French boots on the ground in Syria. But I do recall that the UK declares that they have killed about 300 UK members of ISIS (in Iraq if memory serves). There are quite a lot of French members of Daech - as we call it in France - in Syria. I could see them getting their Christmas gifts air delivered, and good riddance too.

If however Daech comes to threaten or attack Lebanon (and therefore threaten Israel), it is not inconceivable to see a broader involvement in Lebanon. There is of course the precedent of the early eighties where neither Reagan nor Mitterrand shied away despite the huge human cost to both countries. I could be wrong, being not even an armchair strategist even less a seaman, but I do seem to recall that ships can navigate quite easily from France to Lebanon.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it looks like a quagmire.

But please outline the better alternative(s).

Arun Kapil said...

There is something surreal, indeed unhinged, about the calls in France - almost exclusively from the right - to send ground troops to Syria. Those who have been advocating this (e.g. Bruno Le Maire, Gérard Longuet, Jean-Christophe Lagarde) talk about France participating in a big international coalition to fight and defeat the Islamic State, a coalition that would consist of "other Europeans" (specific countries are not cited), Russia (specifically cited), Iran (!!), Saudi Arabia (!!!), Jordan, and other Arab states. Honestly, what mind-altering substances have Le Maire et al been consuming to imagine such a fighting coalition? And the United States in all this? It is interestingly not mentioned. Nor is the regime of Bashar al-Assad, of what its role would be, not to mention its responsibility in creating the refugee crisis and fostering the Islamic State in the first place. I thought that at least Le Maire knew something about geopolitics. Manifestly not. These people are as ignorant and off their rockers as US Republicans.

I agree with Massilian. There will be no French intervention, either before Xmas or after. It won't happen.

Robert said...

Beyond the calls for military intervention, it's fascinating that Europe is going through its third major crisis in the past eighteen months and there's been no discussion of, let alone any progress towards, more effective EU institutions and governance mechanisms. In fact, the refugee crisis, with the NIMBY attitude shown by almost every country outside of Germany, is showing why we're not likely to see such institutions and mechanisms any time soon.

bernard said...

Unrelated to this post. This is interesting:

FrédéricLN said...

Surreal (Arun) is a right word; this is pure gesticulation on the Parisian/media stage — but it may well result in sending soldiers, at the margin of the theater ("théâtre des opérations"…)

Two kinds of political pressures:

* from the media showing refugees => we have to "intervene", "do something", "strike", and any foo may be targeted then (typically G. W. Bush's reaction against Iraq);
* from Christian militants and institutions, who advocate their coreligionists in the Near and Middle East ("les chrétiens d'Orient"), who are directly targeted by islamist terror.

Therefore, targeting Daech/ISIS looks like an easy way to conciliate two contradictions within French society:

* between pro-refugees and against-muslims,
* between against-same-sex-marriage militants (most of them committed Christians including many clerks) and liberal militants, against totalitarian dictatorships (liberal -> rather in the American meaning here).

All of this leads to curious situations: I heard of a Mayor who has a prominent position in a rightist party, who would be advocating on TV to close frontiers, despite he would generously admit refugees in his own town. (would = I did not check).

FrédéricLN said...

BTW I should have made clear that "Christian militants and institutions", despite a minimal weight in polls in France (1 to 2%?), still have a significant place in parties of the right, including center-right UDI and far-right FN. Once again they are a minority even in these parties at all levels, but the number of Christians (esp. Roman Catholic) among militants and governing bodies is large enough to force the leaders to take their points of view / agenda into account.

Still BTW, there has been a "social christian" (chrétienne sociale) tradition in the 60's-70's (rooted in the XIXth Century "Doctrine sociale de l'Eglise", and can be tracked to 1789 "bas clergé", and long before), when a number of Christians joined hands with militants from the left, esp. in the Socialist Party. Jacques Delors being the iconic policymaker from this current. This current still counts a number of well-known representatives including Président Hollande, but these representatives never indicate a religious commitment and the militant base of the leftists parties is now strongly "laïc". Self-declared Christians and Muslims may still be tolerated, but I have the feeling this an identity issue for the left.

On the other hand, declared Christians are clearly welcome in center / right / far right parties, as soon as they don't infer a policy agenda from, say, the Bible — this is the dividing line between classic parties and Ms Boutin's (tolerated but ostracized) Parti chrétien démocrate.

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alexis said...

90 year old Jean Raspail, says, "I told you so."