France’s Case for Military Action in Syria

President François Hollande has embraced the idea of a military intervention, telling French ambassadors in Paris last Monday that he was “ready to punish” Assad

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Michel Euler / Reuters

French President François Hollande, right, and Ahmad Jarba, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, walk in the lobby of the Élysée Palace before a meeting in Paris on Aug. 29, 2013

Correction appended: Sept. 2, 2013, 12:00 a.m. E.T.

What a difference a decade makes. When President Barack Obama cast about this week for a coalition to mount military strikes on Syria, he found — not Britain, the closest U.S. ally across the Atlantic, but France, whose hostility against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 earned it vilification among millions of Americans, and launched the term freedom fries at fast-food outlets in the U.S.

Now it looks like “freedom crumpets” may replace those fries if the U.S. bombs Syria. The British Parliament on Thursday rejected military strikes as retaliation against President Bashar Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons. By contrast, President François Hollande has embraced the idea of a military intervention, telling French ambassadors in Paris last Monday that he was “ready to punish” Assad, and saying in an interview on Friday with the newspaper Le Monde that “the chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished.” Hollande said he envisaged “proportional and firm action.” No wonder U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called France “our oldest ally” in his speech in Washington on Friday.

But what exactly can that old ally do to help Obama’s mission?

As a Mediterranean power, France already has military ships in the region, and could provide backup to U.S. aircraft carriers. But unlike the U.S., France has no ship-based missiles; those won’t arrive until next year. So any action from France would come from the air, in the form of long-range Scalp missiles, similar to those the nation used in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011. The biggest risk to French forces is Syria’s crack Russian-made air-defense systems, which could be capable of shooting down aircraft. “The Russians are very good for that,” retired general Jean Patrick Gaviard, who was the French air commander in Kosovo, told TIME on Saturday. “Both in Vietnam and Kosovo, it was very difficult for us.”

There are other hurdles too. Similar to the U.S. Congress, France has announced deep military cuts. While it might have dozens of Scalp missiles in stock, analysts say the high expense of replacing them makes precise targeting extremely important, to ensure that none is wasted. “Hollande and Obama suffer from the same thing: they come up with big ideas, but don’t come up with the budgets,” says Robbin Laird, a U.S. military consultant, speaking from Washington. “Where is the cash? Both are cutting their militaries precipitously.”

Then there is the problem of public opinion. An opinion poll released on Friday showed that 64% of French rejected any military action in Syria. More than one-third said they believed bombing strikes could hasten the installation of a new militant Islamic government in Damascus and inflame the entire Middle East. And 17% of people wanted more convincing proof that Assad had indeed used chemical weapons against civilians.

Still, Hollande might not care about such polls, especially if the Syria operation is limited to air strikes, as Obama insists. Unlike Britain’s David Cameron, the French President has the authority to send his military into battle without a parliamentary vote. While the French Parliament has scheduled an emergency meeting on Syria on Wednesday, Hollande is unlikely to seek its approval before joining a U.S.-led mission.

In fact, analysts believe Hollande cares less about public opinion on Syria than his own miserable ratings, which hover around 20%. Despite widespread opposition to bombing Syria, some believe it could nonetheless help Hollande, as it would present him as being in close alliance with Obama in a crucial international conflict. “This operation is far less interesting to France as a country, than it is to Hollande,” says Jean Guisnel, who blogs about military issues for the French newsmagazine Le Point. “Here is an unpopular President who is accused of being too soft, of promising things and not delivering,” he tells TIME. “And besides, it will cost him little. There are no troops on the ground.”

Indeed, while many Americans best remember France’s virulent opposition to the Iraq war, the country is in fact becoming a key military partner to the U.S. in various conflicts. Syria would be the third Muslim country in which French forces have intervened since 2011. President Nicolas Sarkozy led the push for a NATO campaign in Libya in 2011, where French fighter jets dropped the first bombs on Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. And in January, French troops stormed through the huge West African country of Mali and ousted al-Qaeda-linked groups that had seized control of half the country.

In both Libya and Mali, France relied heavily on the U.S. military for midair refueling and drone surveillance — capabilities in which the French military is lacking. But defense analysts saw the Mali war as a turning point, where French forces proved that they could lead a complex operation in a blistering, remote region. They have lost only seven soldiers, and won the war within a couple of months. The Mali operation, says Murielle Delaporte, a French military analyst, was “a curious mix of a fully Franco-French operation on the one hand, especially on the ground, and a new type of ad hoc international coalition, especially in the air.” Now once again, the West faces a potential military intervention waged by an ad hoc group of forces.

An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Mali. It is in West Africa, not North Africa.