French soldiers pictured north of Mosul in July 2017. Photo: Fadel Senna / AFP
Earlier this month a photograph of a French Nexter Aravis infantry vehicle raised questions in the French press about the extent of the nation’s military involvement in the US-led campaign against Islamic State (ISIS). Whatever the true extent of its commitments in Syria, France has proven to be a central player in the military effort to destroy ISIS.
Wassim Nasr, a journalist for France24, brought attention to the photo, originally released by the US Army in August but then promptly deleted from the internet. According to Nasr, only the French and Saudi militaries possess Aravis.
While the coalition has supplied infantry and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there is no indication France has supplied the group with any Aravis.
Nevertheless, French Aravis APCs were, as Nasr notes, previously spotted in Manbij in northern Syria, likely helping the US Army patrol that border region, but not this close to an active front-line and not in a photograph published by an “official account” of the US military.
On September 16, French forces fired 70 artillery shells in the space of just one hour to suppress ISIS forces in the town of Hajin, giving the SDF the upper hand to assault the stronghold.
These developments are simply the latest indication of the French commitment to destroying ISIS. In fact, since the US first launched its war on the group in August 2014 and formed a multinational coalition, France has consistently proven itself an exceptionally valuable coalition member.
In the early years of the ISIS war, European nations, including Britain, only bombed ISIS targets inside Iraq, while the air forces of the Arab Persian Gulf monarchies and Jordan launched token airstrikes in Syria. Then they began focusing all their efforts on the war in Yemen by early 2015, less than a year into the ISIS war.
France extended its air campaign into Syria in September 2015. The British parliament also voted to extend airstrikes into Syria the following December. Ultimately, however, the Royal Air Force found few targets to bomb. The United Kingdom and the other European coalition members have, however, provided important assistance to coalition efforts to train partners on the ground, primarily the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi Army, which were critical for confronting ISIS on the ground.
French firepower also substituted the US military throughout the battle for Mosul, the largest city ISIS ever conquered, and carried out approximately 600 airstrikes – launched from France’s sole aircraft carrier, the navy’s flagship Charles de Gaulle, and airbases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates – along with 1,200 artillery bombardments targeting ISIS in Iraq’s second city.
Earlier this year French special forces were deployed to Syria in what US Secretary of Defense James Mattis described as the beginning of “a reenergized effort” to combat ISIS remnants. In March Turkey’s state-run press reported that France had five bases in the country, including ones near the Kurdish city of Kobani and in ISIS’s former Raqqa stronghold. The report claimed that 30 troops were deployed to Raqqa and at least 70 in the other bases. While a relatively small number, this could prove formidable if they are all special forces operating heavy weaponry, as is presently the case in Deir ez-Zor.
When US President Donald Trump suggested that the US would withdraw its 2,000-or-so troops from northeast Syria last March, it was clear that France was the only country with a ground presence there – as well as supporting air power, thanks in part to the Charles de Gaulle, which can carry dozens of high-performance Dassault Rafale multirole jets – capable of both defending and supporting the SDF.
Although Saudi Arabia has since pledged $100 million to stabilization efforts in northeast Syria, its suggestion in April to have Arab armies replace the withdrawing US troops has not materialized. Of the countries mentioned by that proposal, only Egypt possesses a substantial army which has been combating Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula for most of this decade.
France already garnered some combat experience from its intervention in Mali that helped uproot an Al-Qaeda splinter group in 2013 which was, not unlike ISIS, in the process of establishing an Islamic state over conquered land and even destroying ancient monuments in Timbuktu.
Today France is likely to retain its forces on the ground in Syria and the wider region in support of these efforts to defeat ISIS indefinitely. If its efforts over the past four years are anything to go by, it will likely make a valuable contribution.