Engaging in an act of war is always a serious decision for a head of state. Emmanuel Macron surely did not take lightly the decision to involve France in an American led punitive operation to bomb Syria.
We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the French president when he claims to have irrefutable evidence that the regime of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on 7 April 2018 in its operation to recapture a suburb close to Damascus. An area until then controlled by Islamist rebel units but populated by a large number of women and children.
The decision of the Elysee had to be all the more thoughtful that in March 2003 when President Jacques Chirac refused to associate France with a much larger US military operation, aimed at another Middle Eastern dictatorship – Iraq, then falsely accused of clandestinely manufacturing chemical and bacteriological weapons prohibited by international conventions.
The President has doubtlessly fully considered the short, medium and long term consequences of his bellicose action, which he wanted to be limited to the destruction of Syria’s alleged capability to produce chemical weapons.
What are the costs and benefits for France from its participation in the US military operation?
There are four benefits. France shows that it is pursuing consistently its policy of banishing chemical weapons. Having suffered a century ago from the use of chemical weapons by its German enemy, France has always been very involved in the international efforts of chemical counter-proliferation. The non-nuclear powers will probably think twice before embarking on the production and use of chemical weapons.
The nuclear powers (Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea) are of course immune to all Western injunctions in this area. If the information reaching the French military is accurate, and if stockpiles of chemical weapons were indeed destroyed during the raid, the benefit also lies in the fact that such weapons will not risk falling into the hands of international jihadists infiltrated in Syria, and one day finding their way into the Paris metro.
The French president has also shown that he keeps his word. At the Macron-Putin meeting on May 29 2017, in Versailles, France and Russia publicly pledged to strike the first party that uses chemical weapons in Syria.
It should be noted that the Pentagon has publicly accused Islamist groups of having resorted to chemical weapons in the recent past. The Russians should have joined France in the strike. The problem is that they believe that there is no evidence that Assad used chemical weapons; that the Syrian dictator had no interest in waving such a red rag in front of the Americans.
But despite these benefits, many questions remain. By aligning with Donald Trump’s position, has France been drawn into the diversion game of a President currently being harassed by the FBI?
Further, by aligning itself with the United States – when it could have decided, after further investigation, to proceed alone with a military operation – is France likely to lose much of its prestige in the Arab-Muslim world?
Does France appear to be an American poodle – the same reproach that Paris made to Tony Blair in March 2003?
Emmanuel Macron travels to Washington from April 23 to 25. Will his participation in the American strikes allow him to obtain concessions from Donald Trump? Will he manage to convince the American president not to tear up the Iran nuclear deal negotiated and signed by his predecessor Barack Obama?
Will he persuade the US President not to transfer his Israeli embassy to Jerusalem before a durable solution is found to the Arab-Israeli conflict and a viable state is given to the Palestinians?
If Macron does not succeed, will it not have been useless for France to have aligned herself with a US with which she does not see eye to eye on Middle Eastern policy?
Emmanuel Macron is due to visit Russia in May 2018. Will the Russians still consider him an independent, credible and effective intermediary capable of reducing East-West tensions and chairing partial nuclear disarmament negotiations?
France has a main enemy. It is the Islamists who kill our children in our streets. It’s not Assad.
This article first appeared in Le Figaro.