September 7, 2015

The United Kingdom and France to attack ISIS in Syria?

French President François Hollande hints at impending French airstrikes in Syria

In welcome developments, two of the United States' closest allies announced that they have expanded, or are in the process of expanding, their offensive operations against the Islamic State (or ISIS - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), to include targets in Syria. Both countries have been members of the US-led coalition since the beginning of air operations in the summer of 2014, but have only allowed their pilots to attack targets in Iraq.

That appears to be about to change. Both countries now appear to be on the verge of taking the fight to ISIS in its key strongholds in Syria, joining pilots of the United States and its Arab allies who have already been conducting air operations in Syria.

This is a welcome development - while the air forces of the Arab participants in the coalition are certainly capable partners, the British and French air forces are among the finest in the world and have long experience in conducting joint operations with American forces. They can also bring excellent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the fight. The coalition partners now participating in the air operations in Syria are almost totally reliant on American ISR capabilities.

French President François Hollande announced on September 7 the impending commencement of French reconnaissance flights over Syria and the possible subsequent authorization for French combat aircraft to begin attacks on ISIS in Syria.

The President justified the possible French expansion of its operations into Syria on recent attacks against targets in France, including the attack of the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the recent - thankfully failed - attack on a French high speed train. According to Hollande, those attacks were planned in Syria, and the perpetrators had a connection to ISIS in Syria - the train attacker fought as a part of ISIS in Syria.

Should the French president order airstrikes in Syria, it would be a welcome development to be sure, but it would be helpful if France would increase its overall level of participation in the air campaign. This far, the French have conducted just over 200 airstrikes. The vast majority of the airstrikes - in both Syria and Iraq - have been conducted by the United States. Of course, our forces are much larger than our allies, but the commitment of additional resources would be welcome.

President Hollande seems to be on solid ground here - he has the authority to order French forces into action in Syria. The French have shown a willingness to take on Islamist fighters, as evidenced by France's lead in anti-terrorist operations in North Africa for the last two years. While it is a virtual certainty that French ground troops are not part of the equation in Syria, French air assets are a welcome addition.

Contrast the French president's position with that of the United Kingdom's Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr. Cameron surprised almost everyone with his announcement that the British military had used a drone to launch an attack in Syria that killed two British citizens and a third ISIS fighter. The Royal Air Force operates American-built MQ-9 Reaper armed drones - they have been used in Afghanistan and Iraq. While they have been used for reconnaissance operations over Syria since late last year, this is the first lethal strike by the drones in Syria.

The revelation of the attack on the two British subjects - considered by most a targeted killing - has rekindled the debate in Britain over UK operations in Syria. The House of Commons has in the past refused to authorize British military operations in Syria.

As with the possibility of French participation in the air campaign in Syria as well as Iraq, British participation would be welcome as well. In addition to the addition of very capable air forces, the combined participation of American, British and French air forces would send a strong message to the rest of the world that three of the West's leading powers are committed to finally making realistic attempts to - as President Barack Obama promised over a year ago - "degrade and defeat ISIS." It would also treat ISIS as a single target set rather than two separate operations in Iraq and Syria.

If I was handicapping this, I would say there is an even chance we will see French offensive air operations in Syria, and a one in three chance we will see British air operations there. I hope I am underestimating - I would welcome their participation in the fight.