France carried out its first reconnaissance flights over Syria Tuesday to identify potential Islamic State (IS) targets for airstrikes.
"The mission on September 8 lasted over six and a half hours," France's ministry of defense said in a statement. The Rafale jets used for the mission "were able to gather intelligence on the terrorist group IS, and reinforce the autonomous assessment capacity of France," the statement read.
French president François Hollande announced Monday that France would conduct reconnaissance flights over Syria with the aim of gathering intelligence for possible airstrikes against IS positions.
Speaking at a special press conference on Monday — the sixth in his presidency — Hollande dismissed the idea of sending ground troops into the country as "inconsequential and unrealistic."
The decision to launch strikes in Syria marks a major turning point for Hollande, who has so far refused to bomb Syria, for fear airstrikes could strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Assad — who is also engaged in the fight against IS — has been accused of committing atrocities against his own people since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011.
So far, France has only struck IS bases in neighboring Iraq, as part of its military campaign, called Chammal, which was launched in September 2014.
"Nothing should be done to consolidate or keep Assad in power in Syria," Hollande told reporters, adding that France would support the removal of Assad and ensuing political transition. Up until now, Hollande had refused to intervene in Syria as long as Assad remained in power.
"IS, because of the atrocities it carries out, is forcing thousands of families to flee," the president said. There were an estimated 7.6 million internally displaced people and refugees in Syria as of June 2015, and every day, some 42,500 people flee war-torn Syria to escape both IS and Assad's regime, in the hope of finding refuge in Europe.
Hollande also suggested that airstrikes against IS in Syria could help France combat terrorism at home. France is still reeling from several terror attacks, including the January shooting at the offices of satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, and the foiled August terror attack on board a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. "We have proof that attacks have been planned from Syria against several countries, including France," said Hollande.
Airstrikes in Syria could potentially target French citizens fighting alongside IS militants in the country. The UK announced Monday that a Royal Air Force drone strike had killed two British Islamic State fighters in Syria.
This is reportedly the first time an EU state has carried out an extra-judicial execution of one of its citizens fighting in Syria.
"A strategy consisting of airstrikes doesn't seem all that essential," said Michel Asencio, a former air force general and former French defense ministry advisor. Speaking to VICE News Tuesday, Asencio said he was "unconvinced" by the prospect of French airstrikes in Syria.
Airstrikes are only useful, he explained, when they hit "the enemy's nerve centers," including communications centers or logistics bases.
"But IS's nerve centers are not that obvious. IS may call itself a state, but it isn't one. There is no centralized government," Asencio said, adding that militants were too scattered among local populations for strikes to be effective. "Furthermore, if you hit Rakka [the self-proclaimed IS capital], you will have 60 percent of collateral damage."
In an article published Friday, French daily Le Figaro noted that the previous year of airstrikes against IS had done little to weaken the terror group. The group still has as many fighters as it did one year ago, and recruiting is still going strong. The group has not suffered any heavy defeats since March, when militants took control of the key Iraqi city of Ramadi.
The group's latest victory came this weekend, when militants seized the Jazal oilfield — the last major oilfield under Syrian government control.
The US has carried out 7,000 airstrikes against IS positions since the launch of Operation Inherent Resolve in June 2014. In comparison, France has carried out 200 airstrikes as part of its Chammal operation, and many observers have described the country's contribution to the fight as merely symbolic.
As for Hollande's claim that flyovers of Syria will allow France to gather precious "intelligence," Asencio pointed out that both Mirage and Rafale-type jets can only remain in the same area "for a few hours."
Drones, which can remain in the air for up to 24 hours, would have been more useful, noted the expert. Unfortunately, all of France's drones are currently deployed in Africa, as part of France's military operations on the continent — including Barkhane, an anti-Islamist military campaign across Africa's Sahel region.
"In any case, the most efficient [weapon] remains intelligence on the ground, which is what the Americans do, with targeted assassinations of key IS figures," said Asencio. "In the end we'll have to send in ground troops, but today, it would be premature to go in."
French lawmakers are scheduled to debate whether or not to carry out airstrikes in Syria next week.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
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