France’s President Hollande has announced his intention to seek a fresh UN resolution on Syria, and has opened the way to ground operations against Islamic State.
In a series of speeches made after the near-simultaneous attacks in Paris, President Hollande described the deaths of 130 people as an “act of war that was waged by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, by Daesh [Islamic State] against France.”
Islamic State has accepted responsibility, saying that the attacks were carried out in revenge for French air strikes in Syria.
Within hours of the attacks on Paris, Agence France-Presse were reporting a significant escalation of French strikes in Syria, including “a massive bombardment” of the IS stronghold of Raqqa.
France now will seek co-ordinated international action, invoking the principles of mutual defence under UN and Nato treaties.
In a rare speech made on Monday 16th November to both the upper and lower houses of the French parliament, President Hollande said “France is at war.”
Using words carefully chosen to invoke principles of mutual defence under international law, Hollande announced the escalation of air strikes over coming weeks, and that he would seek a United Nations resolution for further action.
He said that France would invoke Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union – the mutual defence clause that guarantees European countries subjected to armed aggression “aid and assistance by all the means in their [other EU states’] power.”
The EU is not a military union, and Article 42 is expressly defined as contingent with “commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those states which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.”
So then, Nato?
Boots on the ground in Syria. At last – a co-ordinated, long-term response to eradicate Islamic State by the international community.
Air strikes in Syria are ongoing, and they have a place.
But in truth, air strikes have never been seen as part of a coherent answer to Isis. Those advocating strikes do so for specific purposes. Recent hits on oil infrastructure were designed to limit Islamic State’s ability to pay foreign fighters. Other strikes have been planned to stop Islamic State moving away from their desert strongholds.
But strikes have never been positioned as a compelling response to the fact of Islamic State itself – or to the emerging half-statehood of IS territories.
And it is that compelling response that France now seeks. “Terrorism will not destroy the Republic,” Hollande said, “because the Republic will destroy terrorism.”
And at last – and tragically, following the deaths of more than 120 people, Security Council members appear to back him.
For nearly five years, UN countries have sought a series of resolution on the Syria crisis – the broader conflict in which 250,000 Syrians have died, 10 million people have been displaced, and 500,000 refugees have crossed into Europe alone.
President Assad rules over a rump state from Damascus, less than a quarter of Syria’s land. Assad is backed, and funded by Russia – and with broader reach secured with Russian air-support.
Previous attempts to secure UN support have founded on the rock of Russia.
But now, a deal.
On Friday more than 120 people died in Paris. On Sunday, Obama and Putin met, and agreed to work toward UN-backed negotiations, and a transitional government, in which Assad may or may not play a role.
The talks were not compelling; but they were the last precondition of the international community joining together to take action against Islamic State. We will live with Damascus, in return for access to the ground.
And that action – in which Britain will be expected to take a part – should be co-ordinated through Nato.
Under Article 5 of the founding charter, the 28 Nato member states can also be required to come to the aid of other members subjected to armed attack.
Article 5 has been invoked just once before: by the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Over the weekend, Nato dignitaries prepared the ground for the transfer of the model developed in Afghanistan.
Speaking to The World This Weekend, former Nato Supreme Commander Admiral James Stavridis sketched out the likely shape of action under Article 5, including an extension of air strikes on Islamic State targets, additional training and support for regional forces including the Iraqi National Army and Kurdish Peshmurga, and, significantly, a small Nato force.
He said, “I think this will be a mission in the range of Nato boots on the ground, 10,000 to 15,000.”
An extended use of Special Forces would resolve the key problem encountered by the US – the risk of directly arming factions who may prove half-friends.
The alternative is a “coalition of the willing”. In truth, this may be what Russia prefers. Old – and recent – enmities in Eastern Europe make Nato unpalatable to Moscow.
If the reward is support at the Security Council table, France may calculate the price worth paying, and settle for a coalition of the willing. The cost would be a less effective and co-ordinated campaign.
There is nothing in President Hollande’s speeches of the last few days that suggests anything but the intention to strike at Isis’ heart, and to strike effectively.
Sometimes the hard slow road is the right one. Resolutions take time, but at last there is the chance to bring the full weight of international law and international condemnation down on Isis. And Paris is worth the weight of the entire world’s response.
The will of the international community may yet back taking on Islamic State in the training grounds of terrorism.
How sad that so many people died before we found that will, and that way forward.