2015-12-01 By Harald Malmgren
ISIS-Supported terrorism in Paris and ballooning refugee flight from violence in and around Syria has combined to generate heightened apprehensions and political discord among Europeans. Political discord has increased not only between EU governments but also within individual EU nations on how to deal with these two interrelated threats.
As refugee problems spread out to touch daily European life, a new source of trauma appeared in the form of ISIS-sponsored multiple terrorist killings in the heart of Paris.
French President Hollande found himself in an existential predicament.
Political polls already showed a big voter sentiment swing to the nationalist, anti EU ideas of the Front National (FN). Local French elections coming soon, the Syrian refugee crisis was already boosting FN support to potential national majority levels. The terrorist events seemed to guarantee FN domination of local elections. Hollande had no choice but to show bold leadership in response to the terrorism.
Hollande called urgent meetings of his cabinet and a political decision was made to retaliate with military force. President Hollande declared a state of war with ISIS, and deliberately chose to invoke Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, but not Article V of the NATO treaty.
Article 42.7 is the “solidarity clause” that states if a member of the European Union is the victim of “armed aggression on its territory,” other EU member states have an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power.”
In reaching his decision, Hollande had to consider several hard choices.
First, he could not enlist Chancellor Merkel as her government had become internally divided, rendering her unable to play a lead or co-lead role.
Second, if Hollande invoked NATO’s Art.5, further French action would be under overall supervision of NATO, and implicitly oversight of Washington.
Successful military action in Syria also would require Russian cooperation because of the already existing heavy military action by Russian air forces against all Assad opposition groups. Russia appeared to be determined to defend Assad’s leadership of Syria. Washington, on the other hand, had demanded that Assad agree to step down before the US would coordinate military action with Russia.
Hollande’s cabinet calculation was simple. Within the framework of the Lisbon Treaty, EU members could coordinate with Russia and persuade Russia to apply more direct force on ISIL and avoid US/NATO objections.
Behind this decision there had been a lengthy history of disagreements from the French side to Obama Administration Middle East policies. French Foreign Minister Fabius saw major changes in geostrategic forces taking place when the U.S. President backed off his Syria Red Line, and then pushed relentlessly his own personal objectives with Iran while dismissing French, Israeli, and Gulf Arab reservations to the U.S.-Iran accord.
Fabius also pointed out that the Russian decision to establish a new military land base inside Syria was likely a game changer, as it became clear Russia intended to stay there permanently.
This French perception was, of course, correct. The Russian decision to accept Assad’s invitation to intervene militarily in Syria, and enlarge its military base presence there laid down an historic marker for a significant reconfiguration of power, not only in the Gulf, but also the entire Eastern Mediterranean region.
The French cabinet also took into account that Putin had invited several other governments and representatives of governments to Moscow to discuss joint action in Syria. Putin had even offered to send Prime Minister Medvedev to Washington to discuss coordination of efforts, but President Obama had publicly refused such a meeting.
Note was taken that General Sulemeini, of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had months before been invited to Moscow to coordinate Iran’s military and quasi-military actions in Iraq and Syria (including IRGC’s oversight of Hezbollah forces in the region).
Prime Minister Netanyahu had been to Moscow, ostensibly to negotiate “deconfliction” arrangements to avoid accidental Israeli and Russian military clashes. Senior Israeli military and intelligence decision makers accompanied Netanyahu. The French believed that Russians and Israelis had already agreed on sharing of information on missions, objectives, and targets. The King of Jordan had undertaken a similar trip with military aides, and made it clear Jordan wished to join in anti-ISIS actions. Saudis and other GCC nations had also made similar trips to Moscow.
It was also apparent that, practically speaking, Russia had already assumed the lead role in the multinational talks on Syria that were ongoing in Vienna.
For the French, the way forward seemed self-evident. Russia already had working arrangements with several other anti-ISIS forces, so the French joining would maximize French impact on events. Hollande’s visit to Washington was to request U.S. help for France’s response to ISIS.
Washington’s cautious response left the path open for overt coordination of the French with the Russian military.
As it later became evident when Turkish military attacked and destroyed a Russian air force plane, widespread information sharing had been going on bilaterally and through the Baghdad intelligence-sharing center well before the French joining in.
The Turks knew well the flight paths of the Russian aircraft as well as those of the US and other neighbors. The result has been yet another shock inflicted by Turkey.
In response, Putin has not only instituted economic sanctions on Turkey, but started releasing information on Turkey’s key role in transmission of Syrian refugees, ISIS oil, and supply of armaments to a wide array of militants operating in Syria.
All of these developments are likely uncomfortable for the present U.S. Administration, particularly the French-led European linkage to Russian plans for ending the Syrian conflict on Putin’s terms.
It might be concluded that Washington’s preoccupation with domestic policy disputes and upcoming US elections had diverted the nation’s leadership attention from Syriaq (Syria and Iraq) to President Obama’s priorities of completing a domestic legacy of his term of office.
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