French Air Force Rafale B

File photo of French Air Force "Rafale B" during combat operations in Mali, 2013/Image Wikicommons

French Airstrikes Continue Over Syria

| published November 18, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

French airstrikes hit targets in Syria for the fourth day in a row, according to officials in Paris. France’s participation in the coalition air campaign expanded greatly after Islamic State terrorist attacked Paris on Friday night, killing 129 people and injuring more than 350.

According to spokespersons with the Defense Ministry, French pilots flew multiple sorties on Tuesday and Wednesday, striking specific targets in and around the city of Raqqa, which ISIS claims as its capital. French officials—working closely with American and British air commanders—say they are targeting known ISIS compounds and military sites, especially those sites where ISIS leaders may be congregated.

Even as air strikes were being stepped up in some parts of Syria and Iraq by U.S., British and French air power, Russian fighter planes were ramping up their attacks in other parts of Syria. Russia has beefed up its military actions in the wake of the downing of a Metrojet passenger plane over an ISIS-contolled area of Egypt three weeks ago. ISIS claimed responsibility for the crash, and said it was retaliation for Russian military intervention in Syria.

This week Russian investigators confirmed what U.S. and British intelligence had already suggested—that the plane was brought down by a bomb planted aboard the plane, and smuggled on board by airport personnel or someone who was given access to the plane at the airport. The Metrojet Airbus A321 was ferrying Russian vacationers from the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg when it exploded in midair over a remote area of the Sinai, killing all 224 passengers and crew on board. ISIS immediately took responsibility, and warned that all airlines were potential targets of ISIS wrath if their home countries attempt to block the rise of the Islamic State.

Late on Wednesday, ISIS published posted photos in its state-run magazine, Dabiq (and on the internet), of what the militant group said was an identical version of the bomb used to destroy the Russian passenger plane. The photo showed a Schweppes Gold soft drink can alongside what appeared to be a small timer, a switch and a detonator fuse. The switch appears to be a standard “on/off” type button commonly used on thousands of household devices and computers. Experts who have analyzed the photo say that the can must have contained some form of powerful plastic explosive, into which the detonator was inserted.

That photo would confirm what some terrorism experts—as well as some involved in the Egyptian and Russian investigations—suspect: that the bomb was relatively small but potent, and could have been easily smuggled on board by ground crew, food vendors or baggage handlers. What is not clear from the photo or the accompanying article in Dabiq is whether the bomb was set on a timer or detonated manually by someone already on board the plane. The passenger airliner exploded about 25 minutes into its flight.

Intelligence officials were quick to point out that there is no way to verify the authenticity of the photo. Some terrorism experts are also skeptical that ISIS operatives would willingly post an image of the device, thus exposing the simplicity of the explosive used by the terrorists.

French involvement in the coalition air campaign had been strictly limited prior to last weekend. Before the terror attacks in Paris, French planes were flying only occasional sorties over Syria or Iraq. But that changed after the weekend terror attacks in Paris, which left 129 dead.

ISIS has stepped up its military presence in more than a dozen countries this year, and has engaged in bombings or terror acts at least four times in as many weeks. ISIS is also attempting to subjugate its rivals and potential rivals in other countries and in other regions of the world, demanding allegiance from a variety of radical Muslim movements and jihadist militants, including Boko Haram in Africa. Once limited to northern Syria and northern Iraq, ISIS now has a significant militant footprint in a dozen countries, including Egypt (where it has a rapidly expanding foothold in the Sinai Peninsula), Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan (where in some areas it is seeking to supplant al Qaeda and the Taliban), and now in Lebanon, where ISIS militants are now seeking to quash the influence of Hezbollah, which supports the regime of Bashir al-Assad in Damascus.

The terror attacks last weekend in Paris came only ten months after Islamic militants stormed the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, killing more than a dozen people, including editors and cartoonists responsible for what the militants said were offensive portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed. Days later, terrorists also killed a half dozen people at a Jewish deli and market in an ethnically diverse part of Paris.

The French air strikes are not being plotted based on Ministry of Defense research or planning, but are rather strikes based on prepackaged data supplied by the Pentagon. Some of the targets had already been identified by U.S. and British drones, and the attack plans already developed by the U.S. Central Command. The French military has a dozen fighter planes deployed to the Middle East, but officials in Paris have made it clear that the Defense Ministry may send more hardware to the region—notably the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which leaves port for the Middle East this week. The de Gaulle will bring an additional 24 French airplanes to bear in the air campaign.

According to the Wall Street Journal, there is now so much air traffic engaged in bombing runs over Syria and Iraq, that the United States is now handling “deconfliction operations” with Moscow, France, Britain and several Middle Eastern countries, and also giving routine flight information in turn to Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Beginning this week Russian air commanders are now in constant communication with their American counterparts to insure there are no inadvertent conflicts between the various air powers.

Late last year and early this year, several Arab nations were actively participating in the air strikes—among them Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Though Arab participation has dwindled, recent attacks by ISIS in Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey may spur several of the countries to again become more active in the bombing runs.

Critics of the air campaign say that ultimately ISIS cannot be effectively checked—much less defeated—by air power alone. The air campaign has in fact produced little in the way of measurable change on the ground, either in territory controlled by ISIS, or in the Islamic State’s apparent success at replenishing its forces quickly. By some estimates, ISIS has even more active combatants now as it did one year ago, when the air campaign was in its first stages. The U.S. led-coalition uses a combination of fighter jets, stealth bombers, drones, and cruise missiles to maintain the air campaign.

Some military analysts have suggested the air campaign is also largely ineffective in ISIS’s ability to create outreach into a dozen other countries, and the three recent examples—Lebanon, Egypt and now France—show that ISIS is no longer concerned with maintaining contiguous borders and traditional geographic realms of control.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been criticized for confidently telling ABC News last week—just one day before the start of the Paris terror attacks—that the Islamic State was being contained through coalition air power and carefully vetted intelligence.

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies say that France will now routinely receive intelligence updates regarding ISIS, and the movements of known ISIS followers or promoters worldwide.

Related Thursday Review articles:

New ISIS Video: “We Will Strike America”; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 16, 2015.

Paris Attacks: Do They Change the ISIS Narrative?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 14, 2015.