News analysis: Paris terror attacks

France pushes for global anti-terror front

Question is whether Hollande can get the support of his US and Russian counterparts for a mission to destroy ISIS

French President Francois Hollande claims to lead "a country at war" against the "aggression committed by a jihadi army". And he has every intention of throwing all into the battle against international terrorism.

France has invoked emergency provisions in a European Union treaty providing for member states to come to each other's assistance.

Mr Hollande also plans to meet US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin next week to urge them to pool resources for the common fight.

"We must combine our forces to achieve a result that is already too late in coming," he said, referring to the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group, which claimed responsibility for the latest Paris carnage.

But France's decision to invoke European collective defence pledges is intended more as a political message, rather than as a substantial military move. And although France's appeal for the creation of a common international front against terrorism carries far more substance, it is also likely to encounter major political obstacles.

France is a founding member of the Nato alliance, the world's most potent military organisation, comprising 3.7 million service men and women. So, if the French felt a real need for military help, they could have invoked Nato's famed Article 5 guarantee, which states that an attack on one Nato ally "shall be considered an attack against them all". There is already clear precedent for that: Nato activated its Article 5 guarantee in 2001, immediately after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the US.

But France is ambivalent about Nato, which is dominated by the US. So instead, Mr Hollande invoked two obscure clauses from the so-called Lisbon Treaty, which European member states adopted in 2007 to improve the way their Union functions.

The first is Article 42, which says that "if a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance"; the second is a provision contained in Article 222 of the same treaty, pledging EU member states to "act jointly in a spirit of solidarity" if any of them "is the object of a terrorist attack".

Mr Hollande's decision to invoke these provisions surprised other European capitals, largely because it is evident that France is perfectly capable of protecting its own territory. At a meeting of EU defence chiefs on Tuesday, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian hinted that what France wants is help with existing French military commitments elsewhere in the world. Yet German Defence Minister Ursula van der Leyden hastened to point out that she had received "no concrete demand" of help from France.

It seems likely that Mr Hollande invoked these clauses largely for political effect; they were merely intended to reassure the French electorate that their country does not stand alone in the "merciless war" against terrorism, as he put it.

His determination to galvanise international approaches to the war in Syria should, however, be taken more seriously: If the French leader succeeds in enlisting the support of his US and Russian counterparts for a mission to destroy ISIS, that would have profound consequences on the fighting in the Middle East.

Mr Putin, who wanted all along to resume his country's traditional role as a major global strategic player, is delighted with France's initiative: He has already ordered his military commanders in the Middle East to treat the French, who only earlier this year cancelled a defence sales deal with Russia, as "allies".

France's push may also embolden British Prime Minister David Cameron into asking his country's Parliament for authority to send aircraft to bomb terrorist installations in Syria; currently, the British are only engaged in such operations in neighbouring Iraq.

But France's toughest diplomatic sell is in Washington, where Mr Obama remains deeply sceptical about proposals to expand US involvement. Mr Obama, who will meet Mr Hollande early next week, will offer France plenty of diplomatic support, as well as a new intelligence-sharing agreement to fight international terrorism.

Yet apart from some US special forces already operating covertly in Syria and Iraq, Mr Obama will refuse to commit any US ground troops. So, France will fail to break the logjam which has bedevilled all strategies against ISIS: That while it is relatively easy to bomb the group's hideouts, it is impossible to eradicate that movement without seizing the territory on which it currently operates.

Given the loss that the French have suffered, no nation wishes to advertise its strategic differences with France at this moment. But diplomatic cracks are already evident.

It did not go unnoticed in Paris that leaders in Germany, France's closest ally, have pointedly refused to admit that Europe is now "at war" with terrorism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'France pushes for global anti-terror front'. Print Edition | Subscribe