But there was nothing new about French participation in the air campaign in Syria, which began in September. As with its prior strikes, Sunday’s raids were conducted jointly with the Pentagon, which takes the lead in coordinating and identifying targets for all of the strikes undertaken by other coalition nations.
While France now appears willing to assume a greater role within the international campaign against ISIL, that effort appears unlikely to move beyond an air campaign to blunt ISIL territorial advances in Syria and Iraq. Rolling back the group significantly would require the deployment of extensive ground forces. A Kurdish Peshmerga force, which wrested control of the Iraqi town of Sinjar from some 600 ISIS fighters last week, consisted of about 7,500 fighters, supported by coalition air strikes.
President Barack Obama and others have repeatedly ruled out the use of ground troops against ISIL. While pledging support to France Monday, including increased intelligence sharing between the two countries, Obama said Monday the introduction of ground troops would be a mistake. “Not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi…but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before,” referring to Iraq and Afghanistan, where enemy forces were able to retake towns after U.S. troops departed.
“France is at war,” French Prime Minister Francois Hollande said in a speech to the French parliament Monday. He expressed hope for forming a grand international coalition against ISIL, including Russia, in the coming weeks.
But Russia is currently conducting its own air campaign against Syrian targets, with different priorities. Its targets include ISIL, but Moscow supports the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and has focused much of its aerial campaign on non-ISIL rebel groups that oppose Assad. France, the U.S. and their allies oppose Assad and have avoided coordinating with Russia on targeting ISIL in the country.
It’s not clear whether Hollande envisions a change to the status quo in how the international coalition is run, and whether France would try to coordinate with Russia.
It’s also not clear whether Hollande would consider sending in ground troops. France has deployed ground troops in Mali, to thwart the advance of forces aligned with Al-Qaeda, but there has been no indication of any intention to put boots on the ground in Syria.
For now, the bulk of the French response to Friday’s attacks has come in the form of police raids across multiple Euopean cities that have led to the detention of scores of individuals. Hollande is also pushing to extend a state of emergency in the country, which allows French police to detain suspects without a warrant.
French authorities face the same dilemma as the U.S. and their allies in using air power against ISIL in urban centers, where the risk of inflicting civilian casualties is higher. Refugees who fled the ISIL-controlled city last summer told Al Jazeera that the group had managed to establish a harsh form of governance over the city despite frequent coalition bombing raids. Anti-ISIL activists also told Al Jazeera last month that the group had begun forcibly conscripting local young men into its fighting forces.