Why France is reluctant to act against ISIS in Iraq

Despite the joint communiques, there are differences behind the scenes between France and the US over how best to respond to ISIS’s jihadist threat, with France unlikely to offer any military aid without UN approval.


On Thursday night, US President Barack Obama announced the deployment of US military advisers in Baghdad to help Iraqi security forces deal with jihadists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). The next day, following a phone call between Obama and French President François Hollande, a statement was issued by the Elysee Palace stressing the need for a "national unity government" in Iraq.

"François Hollande and Barack Obama stressed the seriousness of the situation and the need to arrive at a lasting political solution on the basis of a national unity government,” the statement said. “They agreed on the importance of joint efforts to achieve that goal."

Behind that facade of unity, however, there are significant disagreements between the two countries about how best to respond to the recent bloody territorial surge by ISIS, which has taken over vast swathes of northern Iraq and into Syria. ISIS wants to create a Muslim caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria.

In 2003, France strongly opposed the US intervention in Iraq that ended up unleashing a decade of war and sectarian violence in the country. Now, more than 10 years later, Paris is less categorical in its opposition to intervention but it remains doubtful about Western military action on Iraqi soil.

“France has not been asked”

On June 18, a meeting was held in the Elysee with the French Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Laurent Fabius, and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Pierre de Villiers. For the moment, however, no military measures are planned, a government source told the French newspaper “Le Monde” on Thursday.

Moreover, "No one has asked for it”, added the same source. Requests for military assistance from Baghdad have so far been addressed to the international community or Washington, but "not specifically to France", as a foreign affairs spokesman pointed out on June 17.

The US, in contrast, announced on Thursday that it would send up to 300 military “advisers” to Iraq to help the Iraqi army repel the insurgents, and Obama said he would hold the option of air strikes in reserve.

But he promised that US soldiers would not become involved in another land war: "We always have to guard against mission creep. American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again."

In a television interview on Friday, Fabius defined the pre-conditions for France to participate militarily in Iraq: Baghdad must request the action, and it must be approved by the United Nations. He emphasised that "This is not the case at all today."

In the interview, Fabius repeatedly called for a "national unity government" in Iraq, which he said could be with or without current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The minister’s staffers later tried to soften this, insisting that by using the words "with or without Maliki", the minister had simply meant “It’s not about an individual.”

Iraq’s Sunni Muslims accuse the government of Maliki, a Shiite, of sectarian politics that have marginalised their community. Fabius appeared to concur with this, saying that Maliki had never wanted to ally with Sunni tribes and had pursued "very inappropriate" policies with them.

Payback for Washington?

The lack of French enthusiasm for an armed intervention in Iraq, whether it be air strikes or sending military advisers to Baghdad, is due partly to fear that any intervention would be ineffective if it were not accompanied by a real commitment by the Iraqi government to act on sectarian tensions.

But it also seems that Paris is taking advantage of a chance to pay back Washington over Syria. In August 2013, Hollande publicly declared France’s support for Obama’s initial proposal for western military action in Syria following the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the regime of Bashar al Assad. When Obama subsequently decided against air strikes, he left the French president standing alone on the world stage.

For the French government, the current situation in Iraq is the overflow of the Syrian crisis. "We said at the time that if this [Syrian] conflict was not supported, then we would face complications. The current crisis illustrates the danger of this laissez-faire approach," a government source told "Le Monde".

At the same time, France cannot stand idly by in the face of the armed insurrection by ISIS in Iraq. Apart from anything else, it looks contradictory for Paris to be engaged in a large-scale military action against jihadists in Mali since January 2013 but not to be challenging Iraqi jihadists.

As if to prove that France is not disengaged on Iraq, Hollande has embarked on a diplomatic dance. On Wednesday he received Prince Mitaeb Ben Abdallah, the eldest son of the King of Saudi Arabia; on Thursday, outgoing Lebanese President Michel Sleiman. On Friday, it was the turn of Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And on Monday, Hollande meets the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

It can only be hoped that the diplomatic flurry contributes, one way or another, to bringing an end the escalating crisis of Iraq.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app