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Hollande seeks an alliance

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
November 27, 2015

President Francois Hollande spent a week searching for partners against terror. Though he was more successful than expected, only a coalition of the somewhat-willing exists for now, DW's Bernd Riegert writes.

Frankreich Trauer für die Opfer der Anschläge Trauergäste Francois Hollande Rede
Image: Reuters/C. Platiau

In domestic politics, Francois Hollande was considered to be a weak president until now. The terror attacks two weeks ago have inadvertently catapulted him into a new position. Hollande must now come across as a strongman: the president who will go to war for the French against the "Islamic State" (IS). That is what he promised his nation once again in his speech Friday at the memorial service at the Les Invalides complex for the victims of the attacks in Paris. Hollande has no other choice as the frightened French expect that of him - and his political rivals at home, the center-right Nicolas Sarkozy and nationalist Marine Le Pen, are breathing down his neck.

With astounding efficiency, Hollande has cobbled together a coalition of more or less unwilling partners in a week. It is uncertain whether that will last for a long time. But Hollande's lightning tours of Washington and Moscow, as well as a series of talks in Paris, have provided him with the world's solidarity and several concrete commitments for military support. Great Britain may soon take part in airstrikes in Syria. Italy has offered more support and Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged any form of support to France, thus changing the country's orientation by initiating proceedings to deploy Bundeswehr, the German military, in Syria. In hard times, Hollande can rely on Franco-German friendship.

Equipped with a UN mandate that can be flexibly interpreted - it supports all "possible steps" - France can forge an alliance of convenience to battle IS in Syria and Iraq. The members of this explicitly informal coalition have converging interests in Syria, but they do share a common goal. Seeing as the threat of terrorism affects all of them, Russia and Turkey included, they will work together to break up IS. The group, however, cannot be defeated by a coalition that can only agree on airstrikes. It is not a typical military foe that fights with weapons in a specific region. IS is based on an ideology, and Hollande knows that. It is an obscene school of thought that has spawned terrorist cells in Afghanistan, Northern Africa, Nigeria and many countries in Europe.

DW's Bernd Riegert

The increased attacks on IS in Raqqa carried out by the United States, France and Russia do not preclude further threats in Paris, Brussels, Hanover or anywhere else. It is a long and tedious battle that began after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and Washington and then led to the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, but still did not attain the desired goal. On the contrary, the war in Iraq made IS possible. The group emerged from the ruins of Saddam Hussein's crushed regime.

What happens next?

It is important that the French president not only work successfully toward a military coalition but also devise a plan for the time after military activities. What will happen in Syria and Iraq if IS withdraws? Will there still be one Syrian state? Who will rule it? The current dictator, Bashar al-Assad? All these questions are being put aside to bring together a coalition and the varying interests of its members. But the questions do have to be answered before the countries go to war; otherwise, it will be obvious that no lessons were learned from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States wants to get rid of Assad. Russia does not want that but still wants to conquer IS. Turkey wants to get rid of Assad, yet at the same time would like to suppress the Kurdish rebels, whom other NATO partners support. Germany wants to take part in the fight against IS by deploying reconnaissance flights and more training staff in Iraq but also wants to keep Russia from linking help in Syria to demands for concessions in Ukraine. In dire need of fast results, France's Hollande has few scruples: He boldly approached the Russians - probably because US President Barack Obama still appears to be too reluctant. In the end, Obama ruled out sending ground troops to Syria or occupying territory. Most of the other partners in the still shaky alliance are not interested in doing so anyhow.

Tensions between Russia and Turkey after the downing of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish army have been exacerbated by words, which have had no impact in practice. Hollande must seize the opportunity provided by the World Climate Conference, which begins in Paris next week: He will speak to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin and bring them together at the same table. He must also negotiate with Saudi Arabia and Iran about their roles in Syria's civil war and their support for terrorist groups. Hollande may succeed in truly establishing an anti-IS coalition, a concept that has so far only seemed theoretical. That is what he has promised the French - and they will judge him on those terms.

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Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union