France to be largest Western force in Syria after US departure
The US pullout of its troops from Syria will leave France, with some 200 special forces on the ground, as the largest Western power with an army presence in that country. RFI talks to former Defense Minister Alain Richard (1997-2002 under President Jacques Chirac) about the French army’s strategy and prospects after the US departure.
RFI: What are the implications for a US pull-out, given the fact that Washington still maintains bases in Ircilik in Turkey, in Qatar, the UAE, Oman and a smaller presence in Egypt and Jordan?
Alain Richard: What exactly is the US decision? There’s been a Tweet with a rather limited announcement by President Trump. When and how much are they going to withdraw is not clear right now. The US is providing a lot of news.
We’ve been interested in the blizzard of [National Security advisor John] Bolton to Turkey in the last days where he made fairly different comments. There has been a discussion on the phone between [French President] Emmanuel Macron and President Trump last weekend. So we considered there is a general orientation, a general will of the US to withdraw.
RFI full interview with Alain Richard
But what is striking to me is that President Trump announced to troops, saying that we have overcome the Islamic State [IS.] There is no more IS since I’m here. I suppose the discussions later have shown him that there is still some IS, in [several] forms.
France never publicly gave exact details, numbers and location of French troops in the north of Syria. But n 29 March, 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron received a delegation of Kurds in the Elysée Palace where he “assured the Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) of France’s support, particularly for stabilisation in the security zone in the northeast of Syria” to prevent a further expansion of the Islamic State armed group.
In the same statement, Macron stressed France's opposition to the PKK, saying that the SDF “does not have any operational link with this terrorist group.”
But the next day, the Turkish Anadolu News Agency published a story claiming that “France reinforced its political support to the YPG/PKK in Syria, and maintains a military cooperation with the terrorist organisation,” showing a map with locations of five French military bases, including one in the Lafarge Cement Factory in the village of Harb Ishq. The information could not be independently verified.
In June 2016, the French Minister of Defence admitted that French special forces were deployed in Syria to advise the SDF on how to better fight the Islamic State organisation, especially in Manbij.
However, Paris has always remained tight-lipped about the number and location of its military presence in Syria. In April 2018, it was US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis who said that said French special operations forces “arrived in Syria over the past two weeks to help boost US-led efforts against the Islamic State group,” helping the 2,000 US troops then present in the region.
Officially France employs around 1,100 military personnel under “Operation Chammal” that came to the region in 2014 “at the request of the Iraqi government and in coordination with France's allies,” according to the French Ministry of Defence. The force is responsible for airstrikes and training of Iraqi forces, but the site does not elaborate on ground actions within Syria.
One is remaining groups of armed people in the far north east of Syria, close to the border of Iraq [ ... ] So we go on discussing are we agreeing that the danger posed in the region by IS is over? Have we terminated them? We consider that the struggle has to go on for some weeks or rather months.
RFI: But it would still be the European forces that would actually take the brunt of that power vacuum that would be left behind by the US? The remaining IS still would have the land bridge to go to Europe and maybe attack us where they will not have the same opportunities to attack the US?
Alain Richard: We still consider IS as a big danger in terms of internal attacks on European soil. The question is: what is the use of some fighting in Syria to prevent these kind of attacks? Our bet is that even if we finish with IS in Syria, the danger at home does not disappear. It is a change of a strategic situation.
RFI: The Kurds detained dozens of French nationals who had been involved in the Islamic State. In how far can these be used as bargain chips with the threat that if France doesn’t maintain a troop presence in Syria, the Kurds would release the jihadists?
Alain Richard: This is a domestic issue that has to do with anti-terrorist action. These people, who are on the way to return from Syria are a priority concern here in France. But going back to the regional situation: there is a coalition fighting IS in North East Syria with some agreed targets.
If the US finally withdraws totally, the coalition will be much weaker, we cannot deny that. The necessary action is boots on the ground, but in association with some fighting groups. In the case of a total withdrawal of the US, we will become the main force of the coalition, we will become much smaller, with security concern for the troops, which would need a new arrangement and a new tactical posture.
RFI: Just last week, your successor, the Minister of Defense Florence Parly, went to visit French troops in Jordan, where she reconfirmed France’s commitment to fight the Islamic State armed group, Daesh. How does the US announcement of the withdrawal of its troops influence morale of the French troops?
Alain Richard: before considering the morale of our guys we would simply organize their security. I cannot go into too much detail, but the tactical deployment [of the French soldiers] would change.
This means we have to go on discussing with the other players who are there: Russia and the Assad regime, to make our people useful in their own mission, which is fighting IS. And not interfere with more classical forces of deployment on the ground, so that we don’t have incidents between the different forces.
RFI: How does the US pullout influence France’s relations with Assad?
Politically we are still deeply opposed to the ethics and the approach of the situation of the Assad regime.
The chance was decided by Macron at the beginning of his term, that we wouldn’t try to combat, the Assad regime. That is out of our reach. And that is not necessary the best way to deal with the situation.
The missions there are concentrated against the terrorist organization. Politically we don’t agree with them, we don’t want to support them, in the so-called reconstruction of Syria when it comes.
We think, not only we, the French, but the Europeans in general would press their diplomatic capacity to influence the other partners, Russia, Turkey, to improve the political situation under reconstruction.
RFI: Russia is still the big influence there, and recently there was the eleventh round of Astana talks between Turkey, Russia and Iran. In tandem with that there are the Geneva talks that very few of the opposition ever turn up to. Does France have observer status to these talks, and is anything going to come out of these talks?
Alain Richard: We are very skeptical about this process. We will work with significant European partners, we can do that ourselves. We want Europe to become a more significant partner in the reconstruction dialogue, apart from Astana.