France has announced that it’s preparing to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. The move is a response to intelligence that the terror group is training jihadis to return to France to carry out attacks there. The Wall Street Journal reports:
While Islamic State periodically calls for sympathizers in Europe to launch attacks, the group has mainly relied on Europeans coming to its Syrian strongholds to replenish the ranks of fighters killed in battle. But intelligence from France and its allies shows a new profile of jihadist recruits emerging from Europe: those who are traveling to Syria not principally to fight alongside the group in Syria, but for weapons training to commit attacks back in Europe, the officials say.[..]
“[Before] we knew that it was a threat, but it remained vague,” said a second French official. Intelligence reports throughout the summer provided “very clear” information that Islamic State was recruiting Europeans for training who would then be sent back to Europe to carry out attacks, the official said.
The migrant crisis will surely intensify the danger that European nationals fighting for ISIS could return home. And France has a lot of nationals to be worried about, with PM Manuel Valls putting the number of French citizens with links to Islamist groups at 1,880 (of those, 441 are reportedly currently in Syria).
It’s good to see France taking measures to combat this threat, but the following series of calculations on the part of the country’s government, as reported by the Journal, raise the possibility that the airstrikes may not be part of a compelling strategy:
France’s airstrikes would build on the U.S.-led campaign to degrade Islamic State’s strongholds in Syria. France has been participating in airstrikes to check Islamic State’s advance in Iraq since September 2014. But it had refrained from bombing the group in Syria for fear of bolstering Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, one of Islamic State’s main foes. French officials say Mr. Assad’s position is now sufficiently weakened that the risk of attacking his enemy has diminished.
“We consider that an action targeting Islamic State wouldn’t inevitably help Assad,” one French official said.
As Walter Russell Mead noted yesterday, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari his recently said that the West turned down a Russian offer to jettison Assad because it believed he would fall on his own. And America’s desultory bombing campaign against Assad’s enemies has done much to convince Sunnis that we’re serving as his air force, in turn reinforcing ISIS’ claim to be the anti-Shi’a militia par excellence. Sunnis wary of Iran therefore look more favorably than they otherwise might upon these jihadis who, whatever their faults, at least are fighting the Shi’a.
This time it may be different. Assad may be indeed about to fall, and bombing ISIS may indeed not strengthen his position enough to stop that. But with Russian and Iranian troops and aid pouring into Syria to help prop him up, we’d be leery of taking odds. Commendable as the French turn against ISIS is, does Paris have any more strategy to deal with the problems posed by Syria than we do?