After the Paris Attacks, a European Anti-ISIS Coalition Comes Together

Quickly after the November 13 Paris attacks, France’s President François Hollande invoked the European Union’s mutual defense clause and asked its European partners for solidarity. He embarked on a diplomatic offensive to strengthen Europe’s contribution to the existing U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. Beyond his trips to Washington and Moscow, President Hollande met with many of his European counterparts to seek greater contributions to the coalition but also to relieve French military forces in ongoing counterterrorism military efforts in Mali, Central African Republic (CAR) and Sahel.

Europe’s response to Hollande’s call for assistance remains fairly incomplete, but the UK and Germany have significantly altered their posture, suggesting that the so-called EU-3 (France, UK and Germany) have risen to this tragic occasion.

Q1: How significant is today’s UK decision to commence airstrikes in Syria against ISIS?

A1: The House of Commons today authorized – by a large majority of 397 votes to 223 – UK military forces to conduct airstrikes in Syria. This is a strong message that the UK is willing to reposition itself as a strong security contributor in Europe and within the transatlantic alliance. This decision must also be read in conjunction with last week’s release of its Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) which secured $269 billion of investment in defense equipment over the next decade and ensured that UK defense spending would remain above the line of 2 percent of UK GDP.

The House of Commons vote also takes place nearly two years after UK MPs refused to authorize the use of force in Syria against the Assad regime after its use of chemical weapons against its own people in August 2013 – by 285 votes to 272. At the time, Prime Minister Cameron’s political miscalculation was a factor in President Obama’s decision not to militarily strike Syria which left President Hollande, who supported airstrikes, alone. The UK joined the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in September 2014 but limited itself to airstrikes in Iraq only – while contributing to surveillance and target-acquisition roles in Syria. Until the Paris attacks, the UK’s contribution to the anti-ISIS military campaign was comparable to the French one (270 strikes as of November 5 for France, 344 for the UK) but France has intensified its airstrikes and is now making a more significant contribution militarily. Today’s vote is therefore a strong political signal of solidarity sent to France and had the added benefit for Mr. Cameron of weakening a divided Labour party whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, opposes the military campaign in Syria.

How militarily significant UK airstrikes will be remains unclear. The Royal Air Force has eight Tornado aircraft currently involved in the campaign in Iraq, as well as ten MQ-9 Reaper drones (already involved in the ISR mission in Syria). The Tornados’ ability to conduct small but targeted strikes through Brimstone laser-guided anti-armor missiles could qualitatively add military value to the coalition in Syria, as could equipping the Tornados with the high resolution RAPTOR tactical reconnaissance system. But even with additional deployments (two more Tornados and eight tycoon jets could be quickly deployed), the UK airstrike capacity would still remain much smaller than that of France, which after Paris deployed about 25 additional jets on its air carrier Charles de Gaulle a week ago.

The UK’s military value added factor is important but its political and symbolic importance is even greater for France – and also for the United States.

Q2: Is Germany’s decision to increase its military involvement in the coalition important?

A2:  Yes. Germany Chancellor Merkel’s decision to respond to her French counterpart’s demands for solidarity is politically significant. On December 1, the German cabinet authorized the deployment of six Tornado reconnaissance jets, a refueling aircraft, a frigate to reinforce the French aircraft carrier-led naval group in the Eastern Mediterranean and about 1,200 soldiers. In addition to the fight against ISIS, Germany will also deploy 650 soldiers to Mali to provide assistance to the French and multinational forces still present there. These capabilities however are not to be used in a direct combat role. Germany isn’t going to conduct airstrikes in Syria, for instance. And the German Parliament has yet to approve the cabinet’s plans although it is likely a vote will take place next week. It seems very likely that the Bundestag will approve the deployment of these forces.

Germany’s rapid and robust decision demonstrates full solidarity with France after the Paris attacks and gives meaning to the first invocation of the mutual defense clause of the European Union. It also underscores the importance Berlin places on the Franco-German relationship, which has suffered during Europe’s economic crisis. Berlin has sought as many opportunities as possible to strengthen this essential bilateral relationship, such as attempting to address the crisis in Ukraine.    

In and of themselves, the Chancellor’s initiatives will not overturn Germany’s long-standing, historic hesitancy to use military force, embedded in the German Constitution, nor Berlin’s view that a solution to the crisis in Syria and Iraq can only be negotiated diplomatically. But the German decision makes the prospects of seeing Germany making a stronger contribution to European security and defense in the future more likely at a time when Berlin is engaged in the drafting of a new defense and security white paper.

Q3: Can Europe’s enhanced contribution be a game-changer in the coalition against ISIS?

A3:  Not really, but additional European contributions to the coalition against ISIS are very positive steps. They will multiply the coalition options, enhance its target-acquisition capabilities, and therefore put it in a position to carry out more efficient airstrikes. However, considering the existing U.S. – and French – capabilities deployed against ISIS, they won’t be a game-changer that will accelerate the defeat of ISIS. EU countries involved in the coalition – as well as the United States – don’t want to see western ground troops deployed in Syria to remove ISIS forces and hold the territory which is currently occupied. Enhanced airstrikes will therefore contribute to containing and damaging ISIS, its resources and lines of supply, but won’t defeat it by themselves.

For Europe, the challenge posed by the Iraqi-Syrian quagmire – imported terrorism and hundreds of thousands of refugees – isn’t limited to the military fight against ISIS. It requires political responses to the porousness of the EU’s Schengen borders, the lack of intelligence and information sharing among member states, insufficient mechanisms for firearms control that the European Union is slowly trying to formulate, and the sharing of flight passenger data with the United States. However, the EU-3 – France, the United Kingdom and Germany – have returned to their historic security and foreign policy alignment which is in and of itself an achievement of significance. But the EU-3 now must involve more EU countries – Poland’s ability to articulate a sound defense and security policy with its new right-leaning majority might be a good place to start – and to yield more unified leadership to make progress on the key issues raised by the Paris attacks. From that standpoint, the European response to the Paris attacks remains largely unfinished business.

Simond de Galbert is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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