French President Francois Hollande (R) with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani at Erbil international airport during his visit to the Kurdistan Region, September 2014. Photo: AFP
Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani offered a message of condolence to France and its people in light of the heinous crime in Paris for which the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility. Barzani pointed out that France has stood with the Kurdish region in the fight against their mutual Islamist enemy.
For his part, French President Francois Hollande deemed the terror attacks “an act of war” and accordingly vowed to “triumph over the barbarism” of that group and “act by all means anywhere, inside and outside the country,” to confront it.
This indicates that the French president may pursue a more rigorous campaign against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. In both countries French fighter jets, operating from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, and soon the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle which is returning to the Persian Gulf, are bombing ISIS-related targets as part of the U.S.-led air campaign. What Paris will do in light of this atrocity will be very telling given the fact that there is plenty France can do in addition to the air strikes it is already carrying out.
Already under Hollande's government France directly intervened on the ground in the African nation of Mali back in 2013 after an al-Qaeda offshoot seized over two-thirds of that country. A detachment of approximately 4,000 French soldiers helped the Malian Army kick those Islamist's out of the major urban centers in that country, including the ancient city of Timbuktu. Since then French forces have remained in that country where they have been carrying out low-level counter-terrorism operations.
Whether Hollande will pursue a similar strategy in Iraq and Syria against ISIS has yet to be seen. But if he does he would doubtlessly seek to work closely with the Kurds. The Europeans have sent arms to Iraq's Kurds to help them fend off ISIS attacks. Germany donated modern assault rifles to the Kurdish Peshmerga last year and has also helped train those Peshmerga forces who recently kicked ISIS out of the Sinjar region and seized important routes which connect ISIS-occupied territory in Iraq from Syria. A more direct French intervention now could further weaken ISIS and speed up its demise and defeat.
If we take Mali as a precedent, and bear in mind that any increased action France takes against ISIS from now on will be in light of the gravest terror attack on its soil in decades, then it wouldn't be far-fetched to anticipate a detachment of French ground troops being deployed against ISIS. Such forces would most likely seek to, at least, coordinate with the Kurds, especially in the Kurdistan Region. As with the Germans French advisors could train more Peshmerga in the run-up to the long anticipated battle to retake Mosul, a blow Paris likely wants to play a much larger, and visible, role in now. Similarly in Syrian Kurdistan France could assist the Kurds there and with their consent possibly use their territories as a launchpad to pry Raqqa from ISIS's grip.
While admittedly both scenarios are speculative, nevertheless far more likely than they were just hours before the Paris attack. France certainly has the means, as it demonstrated in Mali, to successfully coordinate and fight with friendly ground forces against such groups. Perhaps we may see the transpiration of joint French-Peshmerga anti-ISIS operations in the not-too-distant future.
A French ground deployment in Iraq alone, even for the ad-hoc purpose of combating ISIS, would be quite an interesting development. The very Sykes-Picot border that has been frequently discussed since ISIS's symbolic dismantlement of it last year was drawn to demarcate not just the boundaries of the then new emergent nation-states, but British and French spheres of control and influence in the region. While France has a colonial legacy in Syria (Syria's independence day is, after all, celebrated on the date that the French evacuated in 1946) it has none in Iraq.
In more recent times France played a major role, along with the Soviet Union, in arming the tyrannical Saddam Hussein regime with advanced aircraft throughout its 1980's war with Iran. Following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which Paris was a member of the multinational coalition, French warplanes joined British and American ones to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq's Kurdish north and Shia south but pulled out in 1998. France also didn’t participate in the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Since Hollande became France's president however there has been a notable shift in France's foreign policy. Namely it has become much more interventionist when it comes to combating the threat of Islamist terrorism at a time when Washington's appetite for foreign interventions declined in the post-George W. Bush presidency and post-Iraq War era. This was strikingly salient after August 2013 when the Obama administration solicited the help of Britain and France to attack Assad for crossing Obama's “red-line” over the usage of chemical weapons. London and Washington fell back on Parliament and Congress respectively who both voted against such an intervention. Hollande, who was ready to start bombing, was reportedly shocked by the decision.
In the air campaign against ISIS France has maintained an active role at hitting any target it deems to be of value to ISIS, be it economic military or otherwise, to undermine the jihadis ability to project terror. That will likely be stepped up in the coming weeks and months and if the French do deploy ground forces to take on that group head-on they will more likely than not seek to work more closely with Erbil.