France's strategic thinking in the Middle East is at a standstill
French President Emmanuel Macron was poised to arrive in Jordan for a two-day visit starting on Tuesday, December 20. French troops are deployed in the country as part of the Chammal military operation. Héloïse Fayet, a researcher with the Institut Français des Relations Internationales (French Institute of International Relations) who specializes in the armed forces present in the Middle East, told Le Monde that the terrorist threat in the region was almost eliminated. This, she said, should lead Paris to rethink its strategy. Ms. Fayet published a study in mid-November examining France's strategic posture in the Middle East.
What is France still doing in the Middle East when all eyes are on Ukraine?
France's presence in the Middle East is currently structured around two goals: The fight against terrorism and the protection of its access to energy, with the supply of hydrocarbons, and to the sea, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and all the way to the Arabian Gulf, the gateway to the Indian Ocean.
To achieve these objectives, France has approximately 2,000 military personnel in the Middle East, making it its second-largest deployment area after Africa. The military is organized around three poles: the Chammal operation, which, since 2014, has been regrouping 600 military personnel divided between Iraq, Syria and Jordan, Lebanon, with 650 soldiers within UNIFIL, the United Nations interim force and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates [UAE], which is used by France as a logistical platform and where 650 military personnel are pre-positioned. These troops are the core of the French position in the region. Lastly, France has embassies in every Middle Eastern country except for Syria and Yemen, where Paris closed its diplomatic missions in 2012 and 2015 respectively.
At a time when the terrorist threat seems to be diminishing in the Iraqi-Syrian region, are the military resources deployed by France still adequate?
The terrorist threat is indeed almost eradicated. In 2021, over 1,100 attacks were claimed by Daesh (the Islamic State group) in Iraq, but that number is decreasing year after year. Daech is almost no longer able to coordinate large-scale attacks. On the other hand, the group remains a social and even political threat in Iraq and Syria, but these are not problems that the Chammal operation nor the French special forces with the Hydra task force can solve.
Iraqi, Kurdish and even Lebanese officials acknowledge that they are more in need of very specific training, deliveries of equipment for specific missions and political assistance to secure their state or local administrations than of money or human resources. For now, however, France is not positioning itself, or on very few occasions, in these areas because of a lack of effective levers. There is a form of standstill in France's strategic thinking in the Middle East since the peak of the terrorist threat in 2015.
Do you think there is a risk of creating a 'security rent' in Syria and Iraq?
France's partners no longer hesitate to manipulate the threat posed by Daesh. They will say that it is increasing when they need foreign assistance and that it is diminishing when the population starts to challenge their presence. The western presence, be it the French presence or the ones of other allied countries spearheaded by the United States, is more than ever a geopolitical rent. The money injected into security forces and weapons deliveries poses the risk of feeding what the fight against terrorism claimed to oppose, including the fragmentation of social cohesion.
And yet, Operation Inherent Resolve [OIR], led by the United States since 2014, and its French component Chammal changed their approach in 2020...
Indeed, following the assassination in Iraq, on January 3, 2020, of Ghassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who coordinated the actions of several Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, by the United States, a section of the Iraqi parliament voted a motion calling for foreign forces to leave. A series of attacks on western bases in January and March 2020, as well as the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, accelerated this withdrawal.
In the spring of 2021, the international coalition, of which France is a member, changed its organization and initiated what it considers its last phase, known as "phase IV," i.e., "stabilization." Officially, there are no western foreign "fighters" in Iraq anymore. OIR is now only there to provide training, ad hoc support and advice alongside other missions in the country, such as ones coordinated by NATO.
What is the impact of the U.S.'s disengagement from the Middle East?
So far, the departure of US forces from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 is having a limited impact. US forces have returned to their 2015 level, with 36,000 troops after a peak of 46,300 in 2017. This is a resizing, the numbers fell in Iraq but they rose in Saudi Arabia. Despite what their local partners may say, U.S. support remains strong, particularly when it comes to sales of weapons. The American posture is therefore evolving toward strategic competition and moving away from the fight against terrorism. France is the last western country to make the fight against terrorism its priority in the region, even though it has recently, and officially, decided to diversify its partnerships in the region. In February, for example, France started a "strategic dialogue" with Kuwait.
Does France consider itself more exposed to the exportation of jihadism?
The terrorist threat existed before the Chammal operation and will always exist. There will still be a need for specific special forces operations. There are still French foreign fighters within Daesh and others who are in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq. They are part of a threat that must be dealt with with a comprehensive, global counterinsurgency approach. At the moment, local powers are not always interested in or able to address deeper problems including the exclusion or stigmatization of Sunni Muslims on their own soil.
How should we view France's policy in the Middle East, which, like the United States, leans heavily on its arms exports?
Four of France's biggest customers in terms of arms sales are Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE. However, France is not such an important supplier for them. These very rich countries now need increasingly high-tech equipment in very specific areas and no longer hesitate to diversify their imports. They are very realistic and are increasingly demanding technology transfers. This is fueling the rise of competitors that we did not see coming, like China and Israel, especially since normalization agreements – known as the Abraham agreements – were signed between Israel and the UAE and between Israel and Bahrain under the aegis of the United States in September 2020 in Washington.
This summer, the UAE acquired the Israeli anti-missile and anti-drone system Barak-8, which has a range of 150 kilometers, in addition to an anti-aircraft defense system called Spyder 124. In February, after several ballistic missiles were fired at Abu Dhabi by Yemeni Houthi rebels, France immediately deployed Rafale fighters and set up a Crotale NG ground-to-air defense system on UAE territory.
Is France's partnership with the UAE, which includes a security 'assistance clause,' in danger?
For now, the relationship remains very good. The UAE is a stable country, a leader of the security policy of the Gulf States, and there is currently no credible alternative in the region. But caution is always necessary.
Right after the war in Ukraine began, the UAE was among the countries that abstained from voting on sanctions against Russia at the United Nations. In recent years, the UAE has also chosen Chinese telecom company Huawei for several of its infrastructures. China also obtained a concession in the port of Abu Dhabi in 2018 for a container terminal, which led to sharp tensions with Washington and to the cancellation of a contract to supply F-35 fighter jets. Lastly, the UAE chose to warm up relations with Syria by receiving its President Bashar Al-Assad in March as Abu Dhabi is investing heavily in the reconstruction of the country. This is in conflict with the western position.
Can the intensification of Turkish military operations in Syria against the Kurds modify other equilibriums for France?
For a long time, Turkey's policy in the Middle East has not been entirely aligned with French interests, except in the fight against terrorism, since Ankara imprisons French jihadists coming back from Syria. Yet we need to ask ourselves some questions given the hardening of recent Turkish military operations. Turkey is a member of NATO and, officially, an ally. However, President Erdogan is directly targeting the Kurdish forces that France is protecting and training, and no one seems to be in a position to hold him back.
Lastly, much like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is no longer of interest to anybody, Syria is becoming a frozen conflict. It has been lasting for more than ten years and appears to be a laboratory for regional and even international tensions. The war in Ukraine could have consequences for the balance of power in Syria if Moscow is forced to withdraw its forces there to transfer them to Ukraine. More generally, there is a growing risk of a security vacuum. At a time when French and even European influence on regional issues like Iran's nuclear program is waning, it is urgent to rethink our strategy and act accordingly.
> Read the full interview in Le Monde.