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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Why France Attacked Syrian Chemical Weapons Facilities

Filed under: Syria

Why France Attacked Syrian Chemical Weapons Facilities
The French frigate Aquitaine (above) and French aircraft fired cruise missiles at Syrian chemical facilities on April 14, 2018. (Wikimedia)

To justify France’s participation in the western coalition’s attack on April 14, 2018, on chemical weapons installations in Syria, French President Emmanuel Macron has released an official report, part of which is confidential, written by his country’s intelligence services. The report provides reasons for the attack and a detailed explanation of the chemical weapon reserves in Syria. The document can be read in French here.

The French frigate Aquitaine
The French frigate Aquitaine (above) and French aircraft fired cruise missiles at Syrian chemical facilities on April 14, 2018. (Wikimedia)

The report reveals that Assad’s regime did not supply details of all the chemical reserves under its authority as required by the September 2013 Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons. Since October 2013, Syria has concealed the secret activities of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS). It even refused to acknowledge the existence of two other sites in Syria: in Barzah and Jamraya, as well as many other places where chemical materials such as chlorine and sarin were stored.

The report also stressed that there is no shadow of a doubt that on April 7, 2018, as part of a broad military campaign to retake eastern Ghouta, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the local civilian population. France also accused Russia of providing military and logistical aid and even political patronage despite knowing that the Syrian regime was concealing and hiding unconventional weapons.

In the attack on Syria, France only fired 12 cruise missiles out of more than 100 shot by the West, but it participated in all of the operative planning and coordinated its political positions with the United States and the United Kingdom during the feverish debates that took place at the Security Council. France also formulated the draft of a new UN resolution banning any use of chemical weapons in the future.

France Looks beyond its Borders

This is not the first time that France has participated with its allies in attacks beyond its own borders. It also took part in the first Gulf War, as well as in military activity in Kosovo and Libya.

France has also been battling terror organizations in Mali, Africa, and is assisting former French colonies as part of bilateral cooperation and military agreements with these countries.

President Macron’s decision to take part in the attack on Syria was accompanied by many consultations with President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May. France earlier requested authorization from the Security Council for the process, but following the ongoing Russian veto and after various debates, it authorized the attack. Under the Obama administration, there were essential differences of opinion between Washington and Paris with regard to Syria. Former French presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande were even prepared to topple Assad’s regime, but Obama rejected their position.

Today, President Emmanuel Macron is following a more cautious, yet firm policy. He prefers to conduct a dialogue with both Putin and Trump and even to mediate between them. He is aware that with the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, he is essentially the only leader able to make bold political decisions in Europe.

At the same time, to improve his image and demonstrate his strength when taking significant historical steps, and especially to avoid sharp criticism at home, Macron is focusing more on the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and the struggle against ISIS terror than directly on the Assad regime. The week before the attack on Syria, Macron met separately with three Arab leaders: Moroccan King Mohammed VI, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Macron found a common language with the three of them due to their young ages and ambition and also as a result of Salman’s policy of far-reaching reforms in Saudi Arabia.

President Macron welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman in Paris, April 10, 2018. (Elysee.Fr)

France is also connected to Lebanon through military agreements and is concerned by the flow of Syrian refugees into its territory. This week, France granted 550 million euros in aid to the government in Beirut following a donors’ conference in Paris. After the conference, it was decided on Macron’s initiative to grant $2.6 billion to Lebanon, most of which would be donated by Saudi Arabia.

About the nuclear project with Iran, Macron is determined to prevent its cancellation, and he continues to hold a dialogue on this with President Trump.  Macron is simultaneously working toward an agreement against Iran’s ballistic missile project and any possibility of Iran developing non-conventional, nuclear, or chemical weapons.

France’s decision to attack Syria has not received a French political consensus, and the government has been severely criticized by both the extreme Right and Left, as well as by several members of the French Parliament from the opposition Republican party.

In a two-hour television interview on April 15, 2018, Macron rejected the criticism, claiming that the attack on Syria was legitimate because it was carried out by three permanent members of the UN Security Council. He claimed that they did not declare war on Syria in the way it was declared on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or on Qaddafi’s Libya. He added that the attack was intended to destroy chemical reserves only and to prepare the ground for the removal and replacement of Bashar al-Assad.

According to Macron, he has managed to persuade President Trump not to leave Syria and that the U.S. forces should remain there until a diplomatic solution is found. He claimed that he has also managed to “separate” Turkey from the recently established Russian-Iran triumvirate, as shown by Turkish President Erdogan’s support for the coalition attack.

French Policy in Syria

France is operating in Syria on three fronts, the results of which are, according to Macron, satisfying and on the right track:

  • Diplomatic contacts and discussions with the purpose of replacing Assad;
  • Military actions against chemical installations and reserves;
  • Humanitarian aid to the civilian population and refugees.

In Paris, a stormy debate on the Syrian issue took place in Parliament, but there was no vote. This kind of debate is not new in France. In 1956, at the time of “Sinai Campaign” with the “Three Musketeers,” as France, the United Kingdom, and Israel were called, and also afterward, during the Algerian war, there was stiff internal French opposition to any military action against foreign countries because of violations of international law. (In France, some officials believed that even Operation Entebbe, carried out by the IDF in 1976 to save the hostages on an Air France plane, deserved harsh criticism for the same reason.)

Nonetheless, according to French law and since the time of General Charles de Gaulle, the president is the head of the entire military, and he is also the administrator and personally responsible for foreign policy. In this capacity, the president of France can take military action without parliamentary approval.

From the political and diplomatic angle, the opposition is also critical of France getting dragged into President Trump’s “adventures,” which could backfire against French interests. The French foreign ministry also sent some of its representatives around the world warning against the possibility of terror attacks on French citizens and institutions.

In conclusion, the recent attack on Syria proves that President Macron is determined to be a senior member of the western coalition with the United States, leading the free world. Macron will not allow, from the ethical point of view, the continued production and usage of chemical and non-conventional weapons. He is taking many risks because there is a reasonable possibility that in the near future, acts of revenge and terror may occur against French targets.