Russia Remains An Unlikely Partner for France Against ISIS
French President François Hollande continues his diplomatic marathon this week in Paris, hosting the international COP21 climate conference. However, despite renewed condolences from all sides, the limits of what Hollande can achieve were starkly apparent during his discussions with President Obamas and Putin on November 24 and 26: there will be no large, united military coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS), but limited “coordination” of air strikes. Russia adamantly clings to its alliance with Iran and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Never have diverging views over the struggle against Islamic terrorism, and incompatible strategic objectives for a post-war Syria, stood out so glaringly.
Foreign Ambitions in an Adverse Domestic Context
The domestic situation is intricate and unfavorable to the French government, which struggles with high unemployment, economic stagnation, social discontent, and the daunting refugee problem. The Socialists are under enormous pressure from the conservative, extreme right, and radical left oppositions, on the eve of dreaded regional elections (December 6 and 13). Hollande’s popularity remains low; his running for a second term in the spring of 2017 is not a done deal.
Challenged at home, Hollande has chosen to invest in international affairs and conflict resolution. His ambitious agenda is in part been driven by the need to exist politically as a leader, and assert national ambitions in the face of growing euro-skepticism and anti-American sentiments at home. Oddly, the president enjoys more support from the public for his resolve in foreign crises than from the political class. The French did not disapprove of targeted strikes against the Assad regime in August 2013, when Paris, Washington, and London were considering a coordinated intervention. When Obama and David Cameron operated a last-minute retreat, Hollande felt humiliated and betrayed. He never fully accepted the U.S.-Russia deal on the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons as a serious alternative.
A few weeks later, Hollande decided to intervene alone against Islamist radicals in Mali. The intervention was tactically successful and gave the president’s ratings a boost, but the rebound did not last as domestic issues returned to the forefront.
The French president does not naturally trust the European Union as a reliable institution to make quick decisions in times of urgency. Yet, EU sanctions against Russian elites proved to be a well-devised and fast-implemented retaliation against Russia’s violent actions in Ukraine. And the tandem Hollande formed with Angela Merkel in Minsk forced the Russia-supported rebels in Donbas to curtail armed combat. The brokered ceasefire agreement was a true, even if fragile, success for Kyiv and for French, German, and European diplomacy.
Paris and Berlin kept a constant hotline with Putin and offered face-saving tactics. Hollande even suggested on several occasions that EU sanctions could be eased, as a carrot to draw Putin closer to European positions. To no avail: all along, the Kremlin has proved to be an obstacle to peace, and a threat to European security.
The French president may have overrated France’s diplomatic and military capacities to act alone, and underestimated Putin’s unremitting preference for conflicts over negotiation. Like a number of other European statesmen, he held the unfounded belief that Putin, despite his aggressive rhetoric, wanted to be a respected world leader and was seriously looking for conflict-resolution in Ukraine and Syria. The Elysée was not prepared for Moscow’s bold airstrikes against the Syrian opposition, jointly with Assad’s army, on September 30. This go-it-alone Russian intervention called for Western states to readjust their policies. But the tactical recalibration was dramatically stopped by ISIS attacks in Paris and against a Russian civilian plane in Egypt.
Hollande’s insistence on trusting the Kremlin’s good faith in forming an anti-terrorism coalition looks odd when one remembers his first icy encounter with Putin on June 1, 2012. Putin strongly disagreed with France’s condemnation of Assad’s “violence against his own people.” He told Hollande what he has been staunchly repeating ever since: Syria’s legitimate president is defending his state against foreign-supported armed rebels, and terrorists.
The annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas strengthened Hollande’s distrust of Putin. But a significant part of the French political class accepted the Crimea seizure as “normal re-appropriation,” and opposed sanctions. They were openly defending the interests of French business, and state companies, in maintaining good relations with Russians. They insisted that the new government honor sale of two Mistral helicopter-carrier warships to Russia. Hollande suspended delivery very late, in September 2014, six months after the annexation of Crimea.
Hollande is subject to relentless domestic pressure on Russia policy. “Les Républicains,” former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-named party, are as contentious as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in their opposition to Hollande’s policies, with the exception of former prime minister Alain Juppé who condemns Putin’s actions as illegal and dangerous. Sarkozy paid an embarrassing visit to Putin in October, when he openly criticized France’s policies toward Ukraine and Syria, and called for a rapprochement with Moscow.
An Improbable Anti-ISIS Coalition with Russia and Iran
After the Paris attacks, France had to gather support from all possible partners, and it proved difficult to ignore Putin’s offer of joining an ad hoc coalition against ISIS. However, talking to Putin means listening to Iran and considering Assad’s interests. Russia and Iran have been providing important military and financial support to the Syrian regime for years, and always denied Assad’s responsibility in the murder of his own people.
The downing of the Russian combat plane by Turkey on November 24 accelerated a dangerous spiral, and complicated NATO’s strategic positioning. And it certainly darkens the prospects of any rapid progress at the Vienna talks on a Syrian peace deal, where Tehran and Moscow participate. The Kremlin and the Russian high command present their own version of the facts to their public, and to our publics, via the ever-present Russian propaganda networks in Europe. Once more, Russia is proving to be an unpredictable and unlikely partner in a large, military coalition against terrorism.
Hollande cannot simply accept being America’s junior partner, now that Paris has paid a terribly high price, and given that France was ready to target Assad’s army in 2013. He will not, however, side with Putin – and hence Assad and Ali Khameini – on unacceptable terms. In France, 9/11 carries traumatic memories. Nobody wants to see a repetition of an Iraq-like disastrous war, but everybody agrees with the urgency raised by Islamist terrorism, and the million-odd refugees fleeing into Europe. It is also understood, even if not publicly stated, that the pacification of Syria as a integral state is very unlikely and that today’s combat positions will have a direct impact on the future balance of power in a largely destroyed and fragmented Syria. The French public sees Assad as a bloody dictator who is no rampart against Islamic radicalism, quite the opposite. Likewise, the French do not expect Putin’s unpredictable regime to be a credible ally.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.