France: Out of the frying pan and into…Syria?

France’s new President François Hollande recently announced that French troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, one year earlier than initially planned. Until recently, Hollande has remained relatively mooted in terms of his overall defence policy. His election was won on the arguably more urgent economic crisis than it was for his stance on getting soldiers out of the desert.

Despite this, the most divisive issue confronting him is perhaps now not the Eurozone debate, but instead responding to the heightening atrocities in Syria.  Some commentators have suggested that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a cynical move to enable him to justify intervention in Syria. Whether this is the route that should be taken is as much a bone of contention for all French citizens as it is for their new head of state. What is known is that real action, be it political, economic or military-led, must be carried out quickly as each day sees new reports emerge of fatalities.

A point asserted by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is that he will call on the UN Security Council to make mediator Kofi Annan’s Syria peace plan mandatory. This would be achieved through the implementation of the UN’s Chapter Seven provision, which permits the use of force.

The type of support the French could provide has not been disclosed, but what is likely is that – as in Libya – France could support the intervention through attempted air dominance, beginning with electronic strikes to disable the ground-to-air defences Syria currently holds in its deck.

As we know, air power played the deciding role in Libya. In the words of Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, Commander of the NATO operations in Libya, “the use of attack helicopters [provided] the NATO operation with additional flexibility to track and engage pro-Gadhafi forces who deliberately [targeted] civilians and [attempted] to hide in populated areas.”

As mentioned in my previous article on the subject, attack helicopters provide a level of accuracy and firepower not necessarily possible with high flying, high speed fighter jets. Of course, Assad has just lost out on several new units of the Russian Mi-35 owing to NATO’s stance on arms coming into the country.

While Syria is obviously a different conflict it is not known just how much NATO’s aerial tactics would need to re-adapt between last year’s mission and this new theoretical intervention. We hear time and again that Syria is not simply a stone’s throw from Libya, but that it instead presents a more genuine risk of loss of life among troops. Would Hollande roll the die so early into his career given the impact that such publicity has on the home front? Would his left-wing supporters back the exchange of one conflict for another? And would France’s significant Muslim population (now 10 per cent of the total) see him as an aggressive dabbler in the affairs of the Middle East, or as a saviour of the downtrodden?

Air Assets and Spec Ops

The industry will be playing close attention to developments in Syria and the use of attack helicopters, EW capabilities, fast jets and early warning systems. Several different rotary wing platforms, for example, could already be lined up: the British with their Apaches, the French with the Eurocopter Tigers or Aérospatiale Gazelles, and the Italian’s Agusta A129 Mangustas – all itching to again prove their worth.

There is also the new kid on the block – Turkey’s home-grown T129, based on the Agusta A129 Mangusta, which could see Syria as the ideal testing ground to advertise its capabilities to the defence market. The Turkish Army could also bag vital operational lessons, which those with an eye on Kurdish relations would be wise to consider.

While speculation remains over how to deal with Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal, one thing that is known is that intervening nations will do all they can to avoid ground engagement beyond Special Force operations, so as to wage a more covert, low-risk and impersonal fight. As strategic analyst James Farwell has mentioned recently, it is thought by some that French COS task forces may already be working their way through Syria’s streets.

Hollande need only look to his US counterpart to see just how a left-leaning leader can indeed operate an aggressive campaign without coming across as a hawk to his supporters at home.


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