France has taken the position that it is a humanitarian force, eager to bomb Syria for using chemical weapons and to promote regime change. Yet something’s not quite right with this picture.
General Patton once famously declared, “I would rather have a German division in front of me than a French one behind me.” Eisenhower’s verdict was not much better: “De Gaulle is trying to put the blue and the red back in the French flag.”
There is a major difference in degree and kind between the military and foreign policies of the French and that of the U.S. in addressing the civil war in Syria. This should be of little surprise to anyone who has followed the uneasy relationship between the French and the U.S. military and foreign policies for the last hundred years, even when they were ostensibly supporting the same side.
For those who remember their history, it is hard to ignore that the first American soldiers to die in battle in the Second World War, were killed by the French in Algeria. When the French surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940, the French kept a domestic armed force which operated within France but was supported by the Germans in keeping control of the French Empire. From Indo-China, through the territories of Syria and Lebanon, to the vast holdings in Africa, French officers, local troops and the French Foreign Legion asserted control on behalf of Vichy France. Even later in the war, when Charles de Gaulle became head of the Free French, French military relations with the U.S. Army were very fraught.
Syria and the French Connection
The French have played a very strange role in addressing the problems of Syria. Because of its legacy of the Mandate for Syria and Lebanon and the French occupation of Syria, France has been heavily engaged with the country for decades.
Prior to the Syrian Civil War, France had historically been a major supplier of weapons and equipment to Syria. In 2001, French President Jacques Chirac was on such friendly terms with Bashar al-Assad that he awarded Assad the Legion of Honour (Légion d’honneur), the country’s highest distinction. Chirac also retained extensive business linkages with Saddam Hussein (despite UN sanctions) and opposed the 2003 Iraq War. His goodwill extended as well to Baathist Syria. French policymakers declared that Bashar al-Assad’s takeover in 2000 ushered in a new era for Syrian politics.
The next French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, praised Assad for defending the rights of Syrian Christians. Even Assad’s wife, Asma, was selected as the most stylish woman in world politics by Elle magazine. While everyone else was worried about Assad and his brutal domestic politics, the French were openly in support of him.
However, when the Syrian refugee crisis began, and Islamic bombers started attacking French cities, Assad became France’s enemy. Assad would announce that the French deserved the bombs and attacks, that French support for anti-Assad forces in the Civil War had precipitated these attacks in France.
Seeing an opportunity to pretend to be a major international power, the French engaged in a foreign policy different from that of the U.S. While the Europeans, the U.S. and Canada were in discussions on how to approach the rise of Daesh and the need to confront its power base in Raqqa, on September 27, 2015, France launched airstrikes on Syria, a move that was still under discussion by the governments of other European countries. In 2011, France had done the same thing in Libya by unilaterally deciding to bomb Muammar Qaddafi on its own before any international consensus could be agreed upon. This was despite Qaddafi contributing millions to Sarkozy’s political campaign.
Now France is trying to take back the Legion of Honour from Assad and Sarkozy is on trial to give back the millions paid by Qaddafi.
After last week’s alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime, and the resulting missile strike by French, UK and U.S. forces, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that he had convinced President Trump not to withdraw troops from Syria and instead commit “for the long term.” According to Macron, “Ten days ago, President Trump said the USA’s will is to disengage from Syria. We convinced him that it was necessary to stay.”
Prior to the missile strikes Trump had tweeted, “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Tensions with Russia, a staunch Assad supporter, have continued to rise.
France has taken the position that it is a humanitarian force, eager to bomb Syria for using chemical weapons and to promote regime change. Its main thrust, however, is to position itself as a friend and supporter of the Sunni-led nations of the Gulf, and to be seen as an alternative partner to the U.S.
Similar to France’s role in Africa, this sets the political stage for military intervention, using U.S. military assets, while expecting the U.S. taxpayer to fund its neo-colonial ambitions.
But How Did We Get Here?
Making sense of France’s long and tortured history in Syria requires a big step back. Back to the Ottoman Empire.
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, France was left with a problem. France had remained as the largest investor in the empire, with double the investments of its nearest European rival, Germany. With the Ottoman bankruptcy in 1875, France had obtained rights in its massive debt and the revenues appropriated to pay it.
The creation of “spheres of influence” in the Levant was accomplished by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between England, France and Bolshevik Russia in 1916. This effectively carved up the failing Ottoman Empire which had chosen the wrong side in the First World War. Britain gained control of the coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, all of Jordan, southern Iraq, and an additional small area which gave the British access to the seaports of Haifa and Acre to allow access to the Mediterranean. France got control of south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Notionally, Russia was to get Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and Armenia.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement was very good for the French and the British but trampled over the rights of the Arab tribes to achieve an independent Arab state under King Hussein [Sharif of Mecca] formed from the Arab tribes whose support for the British war effort (see Lawrence of Arabia) was predicated on the goal of creating an Arab state. The Sykes-Picot Agreement alienated most of the Arabs of the region who felt they had been duped by the British and the French. It also alienated the remnants of the Ottoman Turks who felt that their state was being dismembered and fostered a high degree of irredentism.
The League of Nations confirmed this by mandating the areas to both France and Britain. In 1920, the French were given a Mandate over Syria and Lebanon; a new type of colonialism which looked towards an eventual independence and self-governance of the territory. French troops invaded and took control of the region.
The Arabs had already founded their own state in Greater Syria under the Pan-Arab flag of the Arab Revolt which had joined the various, mainly Sunni, Arab tribes who supported the war against the Ottomans. It was led by Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Faisal established the first new post-war Arab government in Damascus in October 1918 and named Ali Rida Pasha ar-Rikabi its military governor. They established their own Arab state after the war and had begun to work out an administration which considered the tribal realities of the region.
The French troops marched in and took over the Syrian Arab Republic and replaced it with governments tolerated by the French Mandate.
By the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), the Great Powers carved out an autonomous area for the Kurds east of the Euphrates, south of Armenia and north of the Turkish frontier with Syria. The Kurds prepared for a gradual autonomy and later self-rule but were overtaken by the revolution that rose up in Turkey when Kemal Ataturk installed his new, secular, Turkish state. The Kurds lost their autonomy and all hope of independence and even their identity. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) replaced the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Kurds’ demands were not recognised in that treaty. The sense of grievance continues.
France would continue to take on the governance of Syria and the region. Its policy was to play on the divisions in the country, tribal, religious and cultural and maintain those divisions by choosing the weakest to be the French allies.
France’s Own African Colonial Army
France has long used surrogate foreign troops throughout its colonial and post-colonial spheres of influence throughout Africa and the Levant. The largest contingent of foreign troops commanded by the French were those raised from its African colonies.
Beginning in 1857, French colonialists created an army from Africans living in the several states composing the AOF (French West Africa) and the AEF (French Equatorial Africa). They called these soldiers the Tirailleurs Senegalais although they weren’t limited to inhabitants of Senegal. Drawn from the ranks of ex-slaves and social outcasts who were sold to the French by the local African chiefs, they were turned into mercenary soldiers. These surrogate troops were often used to put down local uprisings and expand French rule. This included supporting French ambitions in Syria.
With France’s entry into World War I, the Tirailleurs Senegalais were sent to Europe to defend France. In Senegal alone more than a third of all males of military age were mobilized and sent to fight, with the number of West African troops serving under French command in World War I exceeding 170,000 men. After the war, universal male conscription resulted in hundreds of thousands of Tirailleurs Senegalais being compelled to fight in France’s colonial wars and to provide labour brigades for the colonial authorities.
During World War II, the Tirailleurs Senegalais were used in even greater numbers. In 1940, African troops comprised roughly 9 percent of the French army. Thousands were killed in battle or interned and murdered in German labour camps.
The French were also happy to use African troops against other African troops. Perhaps the best example was during the Syria–Lebanon campaign, known as Operation Exporter, the British invasion of Vichy French Syria and Lebanon in 1941.
With France still the ‘Mandated’ rulers of Syria and Lebanon, in the spring of 1941 the Vichy French Government granted permission for German and Italian aircraft to refuel en route to Iraq. Operation Exporter was undertaken to prevent Nazi Germany from using the French-controlled Syrian Republic and French Lebanon as bases for attacks. While the Allies anticipated a quick knockout, this did not happen, although the Vichy forces were small and without sufficient reserves or supplies. Instead of a quick victory, the Australian, Indian, British, and Free French forces slugged it out with the Vichy defenders and suffered several serious setbacks before the ceasefire on 12 July. The reason that the Free French and the Vichy French showed such valour was that they were both made up of Senegalese troops and Foreign Legionnaires. There were very few French actually involved.
By July most of the Free French forces and Vichy forces (especially the Senegalese), had enough of killing their countrymen, and refused to continue. The Senegalese were tired of fighting other Senegalese and went home. The War in Lebanon was much quicker, with French soldiers quitting after six days because they had run out of Senegalese.
As the war in Europe continued large numbers of African soldiers continued to die. By late 1944 it became clear that the Germans would be defeated. The Italians had already changed sides and de Gaulle was installed as the leader of the Free French. Vichy had disappeared.
De Gaulle and his generals decided that it was time to “whiten” the French Army. When he saw that the Allies had pushed the Germans out of France, he decided that it was too dangerous to continue to use these African troops. De Gaulle ordered a “whitening” of the troops by replacing 20,000 Africans which were in battle at the front with white French soldiers. This event caused hatred and dislike between the white and the blacks at war. These Tirailleurs Senegalais troops were segregated in French demobilising centres waiting to go back home.
While at the centres these African soldiers faced discriminatory treatment. They barely got the food and resources they needed and did not have any kind of shelter. The French refused to pay them the money they owed them and informed them that, as they weren’t French, they would not be entitled to any pensions or benefits from their contribution to the Liberation of France. They were then transported out of France to holding camps in Africa, near Dakar in Senegal.
In December 1944, humiliated and without having been given what they were promised, the soldiers at the camp at Thiaroye protested for the back pay to which they were entitled. The protest was seen by the French as defiance against the French military and the general in charge, with the help of the gendarmerie, ordered the “white” French military to deploy machine guns and opened fire on the African soldiers which resulted in thirty-five Africans killed, hundreds wounded, and many sent to jail. It was known as the Thiaroye Massacre. It is not in any French history books, but it isn’t forgotten among African soldiers.
France and a Fractured Syria
The French state has claimed a long relationship with the Christian Maronite community in Lebanon, and the Alawi, a minority offshoot, in Syria. The consequences of this can be seen in today’s problems.
The al-Assad clique, which runs Syria, are Alawis, followers of an Ismaili belief system that incorporates aspects of both Shi’a and Sunni Islam and some Christian beliefs. Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany. In fact, the Turkish Alevi (a Turkish variant) maintain that they are not Muslims as all. The majority Sunni communities agree and view the Alawi as largely a cultural group rather than a heterodox Muslim sect.
The Alawi, of whom there are about 1,350,000 in Syria and Lebanon, constitute Syria’s largest religious minority. Because many of the tenets of the faith are secret, Alawis have refused to discuss their faith with outsiders. Only a select few learn the religion after a lengthy process of initiation, with youths initiated into the secrets of the faith in stages.
Regarding the Alawi as infidels, the Ottomans had consistently persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation. For centuries, the Alawi constituted Syria’s most repressed and exploited minority. Most were indentured servants and tenant farmers or sharecroppers working for Sunni landowners. Because of their outcast status, many government jobs were off-limits to them and they never prospered in business. They mobilised out of their rural setting by joining the Army. They rose in the ranks and were the key elements in the Syrian Baath Party. The Baath Party was able to establish itself in Syria in 1954, and in Iraq by 1963. The Iraqi Baathists were almost exclusively Sunni while Syrian Baathists were primarily Alawi. The two main branches of the Baath Party controlled both Iraq and Syria for nearly forty years.
In Syria, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar Assad’s father, originally led the party which was dominated by the Alawi (about 12% of the Syrian nation) and supported by the network of Alawi in the army and the national intelligence establishment. By the late 1960s, the Baath was also in full control of Iraq, with Saddam Hussein running the party. That created a problem, however, as both Assad and Hussein insisted that their branch of the party was running the ‘official’ Baath movement. The two men could not agree on who was in charge and became bitter enemies. When Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, many senior Iraqi Baath Party members fled to Syria and made peace with the Syrian branch of the party. This put the Syrian Baath Party in a tough position. Al Qaeda also considers Alawites just as heretical, and worthy of death, as the Shiites. To further complicate this situation, Syria has long been an ally of Shia Iran, mainly because Iran was a long-time enemy of Iraq.
The Wrath of Assad
The Syrian Baathists, after its founding, had soon given up any notion of Arab socialism and Syria became a corrupt police state. By 1982, Hafez Assad banned all other political parties except the Baath. He had them ruthlessly dissolved, with their leaders killed or subject to involuntary exile. The free press of Syria was outlawed. The only newspapers that were allowed into circulation were official Baath papers.
The people of Syria eventually grew unhappy with these turns of events. A new political party was formed, the Muslim Brotherhood. This Muslim Brotherhood attracted a lot of support from unhappy Syrians, most Sunni (and was supported by Egyptians). The Muslim Brotherhood embarked upon a program to overthrow Assad. They made their presence known with demonstrations and protest marches and soon gathered considerable support. In response, Hafez Assad deployed his army to make such an example of the Muslim Brotherhood that no man would ever dare challenge his rule again.
One centre of opposition was the city of Hama. Hafez Assad decided that Hama would be the staging point of the example he was to make to the Syrian people. In the twilight hours of February 2, 1982, the city of Hama was awakened by loud explosions. The Syrian air force began to drop their bombs on the city. The initial bombing run cost the city only a few casualties. Its main purpose had been to disable the roads so that no-one could escape. Earlier in the night, Syrian tanks and artillery systems had surrounded Hama. With the conclusion of the air bombing run, the tanks and artillery began their relentless shelling of the town.
Thousands died. As homes crumbled upon their living occupants and the smell of charred skin filled the streets, a few residents managed to escape the shelling and started to flee. They were met by the Syrian army under Rifaat Assad (Hafez’s brother), which had surrounded the city. The residents were all shot dead. The artillery barrage was followed by waves of Syrian soldiers. They quickly converged on the town, killing anything that moved. Groups of soldiers rounded up men, women, and children only to shoot them in the back of the head.
After the majority of the people in Hama were dead, the soldiers began looting. They took all that they could from the now empty homes. Some were seen picking through the dead civilians looking for money, watches, and rings. Finally, the soldiers withdrew. The final horror was yet to come. To make sure that no person was left alive in the rubble and buildings, the Syrian army brought in poison gas generators. Cyanide gas filled the air of Hama. Bulldozers were later used to turn the city into a giant flat area. The lessons of the Hama Massacre were not lost on the Syrian population and an already deep dissatisfaction with the Alawi grew deeper.
It was this same group of unrestrained and vicious military leaders who marched into Lebanon with the Syrian Army and occupied Lebanon as a protectorate in 1976. Assad wanted to prevent Lebanese sectarian warfare from spilling over into Syria and had to be certain that Lebanon maintained a unified front with Syria in any negotiations with Israel, especially after 1979.
As Syria has very little resources, Lebanon provided a free trade zone and a place to extort money. Assad did not want to leave Lebanon. This is why no one had any doubts that it was the Syrians who assassinated Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime Minister, or blew up several journalists. The withdrawal of Syrian troops was confirmed by the UN Security Council and enshrined in Resolution 1559 of 2 September 2004.
Yet, despite the withdrawal of Syrian troops there was still a well-organised Lebanese militia force operating in Lebanon in defiance of Resolution 1559 – the Hizbollah (God’s Party)(or Hezbollah). The Hizbollah were funded, guided and supplied from Iran with the direct help of the Syrians. Initially trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the group continues to receive extensive funding and weapons from Tehran.
Great Power Interest in the Syrian Civil War
France has a long relationship with the Christian Maronite community in Lebanon, and the Alawi, a minority offshoot, in Syria. The consequences of this can be seen in today’s problems.
The empowerment of the Alawi in Syria, and the Maronite Christians and Druze in Lebanon, are a direct result of French neo-colonial administrations. The various Arab nationalist and fundamentalist groups which arose in the region were also tied to the Sunni Arabs of the region who were unable to insist that their influence should extend beyond Saudi Arabia and the states of the Gulf. They saw the rise of Iranian power as an existential threat to fundamental Sunni interests. They were more tolerant of religious fanaticism and talk of a New Caliphate being born from dissident Sunni Arab youth. The wealthy states of the Gulf knew that they could buy the peace they needed at home, but they would have trouble trying to buy peace from the Iranians and the Iraqi Shia.
The outbreak of the Syrian Civil War locked these differences in place. There were many conflicts within Syria of groups who opposed Assad and the Alawi. To a large degree, this was not a world problem until the rise of Daesh. Daesh made the war in Syria (and later Iraq) into a world problem.
When the civil war broke out in Syria it was not a major problem for the great powers of the world. There had been little peace in Syria or Lebanon for years. A great deal of Lebanon was still rubble from its war and the Syrian occupation.
Bashar Assad had taken over when his father died in 2000, and was not groomed to run the country. Trained as an optometrist, it was up to Bashar to keep things together after his older brother, the heir apparent, had died in an accident. Yet, the hold of Assad in Syria was not in doubt but only because of the violent and ubiquitous enforcement of government terror against its domestic political forces. The attention of the world was in Iraq and Afghanistan where war, engaging Western troops, had been going on for almost ten years. The Syrian civil war was a sideshow.
There is very little that the world needs from Syria. Its oil has always been trivial, and it suffers a constant lack of water which makes it a net importer of food. It has been surviving with grants and loans from the Soviet Union and later Russia. In return for this, Syria allowed the Soviets a large Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Established under a 1971 agreement with Syria, it is staffed by Russian naval personnel. The base supports the Russian Navy’s fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.
During the 1970s, similar support points were located in Alexandria and Mersa Matruh, Egypt and Latakia, Syria. In 1977 the Egyptian bases were closed, and the vessels moved to Tartus. In 1991, the Russians pulled back most of their foreign bases and wiped out their 5th Mediterranean Squadron. The remaining base at Tartus was made part of the Black Sea Fleet. Not really a base for fighting naval warfare, it has three floating docks, a floating workshop, storage facilities, barracks and other facilities.
In 2009, President Assad agreed to the port’s conversion into a permanent Middle East base for Russia. Since 2009, Russia has been renovating the Tartus naval base and dredging the port to allow access for its larger naval vessels. It is clear that the Russians see this base in the Mediterranean as a response to the Western efforts to site missile bases near to the Russian border and see the Tartus base as an important bargaining chip in negotiations with NATO.
To achieve the security of tenure for the Tartus base it is vitally important for the Russians to keep Bashar Assad in power. Russia has recently constructed and extended several air bases and installed its latest radar systems. Theoretically, the Russian effort in Syria is designed to confront and eradicate Daesh. In reality, it is also there to support Assad in power.
The U.S. is in Syria to combat Daesh, as Daesh had spread into Iraq and was threatening the stability of the new Iraqi government, killing many, especially the Kurds, Yazidi, Turkmen and Christians. Using the Peshmerga Kurdish forces and the YPG spinoffs, the U.S. Special Forces in Northern Syria have made stunning successes against Daesh and almost obliterated them. They have reclaimed a great deal of northern Syria, including the oil wells and the rivers.
On 17 March 2016 the Kurds announced the formation of a new Federation of Northern Syria that would take in Kurdish-majority areas of Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin, known as Rojava, plus Arab towns currently under Kurdish control. Salih Muslim Mohammed, the co-leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest Kurdish party in Syria, said the federation should not be seen as an autonomous Kurdistan region, but rather a blueprint for a future decentralised and democratic country, where everyone is represented in government. “There is no autonomous Kurdish region, so there is no question of recognising it or not,” he said. “It is part of a democratic Syria, and it might expand all over Syria. We want to decentralise Syria, in which everyone has their rights.” That same day, two hundred members, delegates and party members including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians from the Kurdish areas of Syria and Syrian towns including Manbij, Aleppo, and al-Shahbaa elected a council of 31 members for the Democratic Federal System for Rojava and Northern Syria. [Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “This is a new Syria, not a new Kurdistan”, Middle East Eye, 20/3/16].
To a large extent, the creation, survival and success of the Federation of Northern Syria encompasses much of the U.S. foreign policy ambitions. There are very few people or agencies in the U.S. Government ready and willing to engage in the reconstruction of the Syrian cities or the infrastructure. If the Syrians and the Russians destroyed it, let them rebuild it. There is nothing in Syria the U.S. needs. In fact, the civil war in Syria has fatally delayed or made almost unreachable the goal of drilling for offshore gas.
When the U.S. is indicating that it will pull its troops out of Syria, when Daesh is finally defeated, it means that it supports a policy of the Balkanisation of Syria. The U.S. would prefer to see the Federation of Northern Syria survive and prosper, and is working to engage some of the Sunni nations of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in taking over the military security of the Federation. The U.S. is already paying for the YPG forces engaged with the U.S. in destroying Daesh. There is no need for the current levels of assistance from the U.S. when the last vestiges of Daesh are dissipated.
So who gets stuck with the bill?
During the Arab Spring uprisings against Muammar Gaddafi, France had insisted that there be a no-fly zone over Libya. The French interpretation of UN Resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone over the country, was bolder than either the US’s or the UK’s position. It also insisted on calling this a NATO operation. It used up almost all of its ammunition in the first weeks of the Libyan campaign and U.S. military assistance was required to keep the operation going. The US spent almost $1.5 billion in the first wave of attacks by the French and British.
Since then the French have requested foreign assistance from the U.S. and its EU allies for pursuing its often-aggressive neo-colonial policies in Africa and Syria as it could not afford these on its own.
There is an ironic side to France requiring assistance from NATO to support its neo-colonial policies. It withdrew from being a full member of NATO in 1966 and remained separated for decades. The reason for withdrawal was that France believed NATO was not militarily supportive enough.
France’s effort to develop its own non-NATO defence capability, including the development of its own nuclear arsenal in the 1960s, was to ensure that the French military could operate its own colonial and post-colonial conflicts more freely. Under de Gaulle, France had attempted to draw NATO into France’s colonial conflicts (on France’s side). De Gaulle claimed that Algeria was part of France and thus was part of NATO. Therefore, NATO must intervene to assist France in putting down Algerian independence movements. After the British and Americans refused to assist with French colonialism, de Gaulle expelled NATO troops from France and set up a more independent French military. Now that France is back in NATO it is making the same request of its partners as de Gaulle.
France is able and willing to carry on its neo-colonial military efforts because it is subsidised by massive U.S. military and financial assistance and financial assistance from the European Union, calling it a NATO and European Defence Force. If the Congress thought it was wrong under de Gaulle they should realise that it is also wrong under Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron. There are many good reasons to reduce the U.S. forward presence in Syria as long as the safety of the Federation of Northern Syria and the Kurds is assured. Being urged on by France to expand the U.S. involvement may assist France and its commercial interests. It doesn’t advance U.S. interests.
Dr. Busch has had a varied career-as an international trades unionist, an academic, a businessman and a political intelligence consultant. He was a professor and Head of Department at the University of Hawaii and has been a visiting professor at several universities. He was the head of research in international affairs for a major U.S. trade union and Assistant General Secretary of an international union federation. His articles have appeared in the Economist Intelligence Unit, Wall Street Journal, WPROST, Pravda and several other news journals. He is the editor and publisher of the web-based news journal of international relations www.ocnus.net.
Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.
For up-to-date news, please follow us on twitter at @LimaCharlieNews
In case you missed it: