File photos of the flags of France and Syria
Hide Caption

Why is France pushing so hard on Syria?

a a a a
Share this story

CREIL, France (AP) -- In a secretive compound north of Paris, colored blips and blotches on a computer-screen map of Damascus depict an armored vehicle at a highway, tanks, a blown-up building in a suburban field. An unusual glimpse at France's military intelligence headquarters demonstrates how closely the French are watching what's happening in Syria - and how involved the French government is in ending Syria's civil war.

As French President Francois Hollande keeps up the threat of military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, he isn't just acting as President Barack Obama's poodle, as some critics maintain. France, Syria's onetime colonial ruler and a country eager to maintain its place as a military and diplomatic power, has plenty of reasons to be out front on Syria.

HISTORY

The Middle Eastern country took its current shape as a French mandate after being chiseled out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, as did neighboring Lebanon, and French is spoken by many in both countries. France has particularly close ties to Lebanon and wants to prevent it from being sucked further into Syria's chaos.

The ties to the region also make Syria a particularly attractive place for homegrown French extremists. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said this month that about 110 citizens or residents of France have joined up with jihadist fighters in Syria - about half the total number from European Union countries. French authorities fear they will return home to carry out terrorism.

Also, fear of chemical weapons runs deep in France, which is why France has hardened its line since the Aug. 21 attack in which the U.S. and some allies believe Assad's regime used sarin gas against Syrian citizens. Many French people have ancestors who faced mustard gas in World War I, as chemical weapons scarred public consciousness for the first time.

INDEPENDENCE AND INTELLIGENCE

Dating back to the presidency of Gen. Charles de Gaulle in the midst of the Cold War, France has long sought to show it makes military decisions independently. A nuclear power, it has also built up one of the world's more robust intelligence machines, in part to show that it doesn't just rely on the United States for information.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian tried to drive home that point to a small group of journalists invited to the headquarters of DRM, France's military intelligence agency, in Creil north of Paris, and taken inside the high-security computer nerve center where images are beamed down from France's Helios and Pleaides satellites. The message was aimed mostly at domestic audiences, who are disillusioned with Hollande and wary of an intervention in Syria.

Screens bore labels of Damascus, the Syrian capital; a nuclear facility at Bushehr, Iran; and Gao, Mali - in the vast desert zone that was controlled by al-Qaida-linked Islamic radicals until French troops ousted them this year.

The images from Damascus appeared to date from late August, and military officers in the image-monitoring center quietly acknowledged that tracking movements of chemical weapons in Syria was difficult by satellite. The DRM also collects intelligence from human sources and through electronic monitoring.

A high-ranking officer with the 13th RDP special forces regiment explained how French troops parachuted secretly into Mali - not showering for days beforehand because dogs can smell soap. Another showed a fake cinder block with a camera inside that could be planted near the suspected hideout of enemy fighters. A bogus stone made of plastic resin about the size of a volleyball hid a GPS beacon inside, to help with targeting. Defense Ministry escorts said the officers' names could not be used for security reasons.

THE MALI MODEL OF MILITARY MUSCLE

France's intervention in Mali has emboldened the government on other overseas operations. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was largely ousted from northern Mali. Only seven French soldiers died in the months-long intervention, while French officials say hundreds of militants were killed. The operation paved the way for elections generally seen as legitimate.

The Mali intervention offered France "an assertion of French military capabilities outside of an operation dominated by the U.S.," said Marc Pierini, a Frenchman who served 35 years as a European Union diplomat, including four years as its ambassador to Syria at the start of Assad's tenure.

SOLE STRENGTH IN EUROPE?

After Britain's parliament blocked any potential British military participation in a Syria strike earlier this month, France stood alone as the European country most willing to wield the military threat alongside the United States against Assad's regime.

From a military standpoint, "none of the other European countries are needed," Pierini said. "The only European country that has Tomahawks is the U.K. - it's paralyzed politically - so the next best thing is the French Scalp," an airplane-fired cruise missile.

Former Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine

said France also wants to give more teeth to the EU.

"The other Europeans are not in the mindset of `Europe power,' but one of `Big Switzerland' - that's to say an isolationist, pacifist evolution," and want to avoid "all foreign dramas and intervene as little as possible," he said in a phone interview.

Not so France.

WANTING TO BE HEARD

A permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, France is often seen as a fading, if not already faded, power. Hollande wants to counter that, and is using France's vast diplomatic network to do so.

It's also propelled by a French Revolution-era belief in universal values of human rights, which has played a role in French military interventions from Bosnia to Afghanistan. An exception was Iraq a decade ago, when then-President Jacques Chirac opposed the U.S.-led operation in Iraq, saying it wasn't justified.

"C'est la France, Monsieur!" said Pierini, referring to France's impulse to intervene. "It's in part the issue of principle."

Added Vedrine, the former foreign minister: "The question is not, `Do we side up with the United States?' It is, `Can we let this massacre happen without reacting?'"

Previous
1 2
Next

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Print this article

Comments

Hmm... It looks like you’re not a WCPO Insider. or Subscribe now to contribute!

More World News
Pope, huge crowd joyously celebrate Easter
Pope, huge crowd joyously celebrate Easter

Marking Christianity's most hopeful day, Pope Francis made an Easter Sunday plea for peace and dialogue in Ukraine and Syria,…

On Easter, Pope calls faithful to expand faith
On Easter, Pope calls faithful to expand faith

Pope Francis baptized 10 people Saturday and urged them to bring their faith "to the ends of the Earth" as he presided over an…

Sunken Korean ferry death toll could exceed 300
Sunken Korean ferry death toll could exceed 300

Divers continued the grim work of recovering bodies from inside a sunken South Korean ferry Monday, securing a new entryway into the wreck. A…

Holy fire ceremony draws thousands to Jerusalem
Holy fire ceremony draws thousands to Jerusalem

The dark hall inside Christianity's holiest shrine was illuminated with the flames from thousands of candles on Saturday as worshippers…

Everest avalanche a reminder of risk for Sherpas
Everest avalanche a reminder of risk for Sherpas

The rescuers moved quickly, just minutes after the first block of ice tore loose from Mount Everest and started an avalanche that roared…

Student fought bureaucrats for Holocaust justice
Student fought bureaucrats for Holocaust justice

After beginning her crusade in 2011, Charlotte van den Berg has possibly won a battle for Jewish Holocaust survivors against Amsterdam. The…

Sub search for missing jet to be finished soon
Sub search for missing jet to be finished soon

A robotic submarine looking for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is expected to finish searching a patch of the Indian Ocean seabed within a…

Pope leads torch-lit Good Friday procession
Pope leads torch-lit Good Friday procession

Pope Francis is presiding over a torch-lit Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum marking Good Friday in Rome.

Arrest warrant issued for Korean ferry captain
Arrest warrant issued for Korean ferry captain

Prosecutors say they've asked a court to issue an arrest warrant for the captain of the South Korean ferry that sank two days ago,…

Christians mark Good Friday in the Holy Land
Christians mark Good Friday in the Holy Land

Christians in the Holy Land are commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in Good Friday prayers and processions through Jerusalem's…