The French defense ministry announced Sunday that its air force is attacking the capital of ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. Twenty sites were struck, France says, including a command post and training camp. The attack comes hours after it was reported that the Paris terrorists communicated with ISIS command in Syria and that the men were trained, not merely inspired, by ISIS. The news was first reported on the Twitter feed of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a local activist group.
French forces have hit Raqqa before: on Oct. 8, in an effort to forestall the very kinds of attacks that unfolded in Paris last weekend. But those airstrikes were nowhere near as extensive. And they were one of a handful of French air attacks on Syria. Sunday’s assault on Raqqa could be a preview of a much more extensive campaign. But the question is: Will the airstrikes be any more than an act of vengeance?
Of the 1,772 coalition strikes conducted inside Syria since the air campaign began, only 146 have been by nations other than the United States, France being one of the eight nations.
Assuming that each of those eight countries are contributing evenly, France conducted an estimated 18 strikes before Sunday in Syria. That’s only an approximation, of course. And it is unclear how many of those 146 strikes were in Raqqa, but a U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast the last French strike in that city was Oct. 8. (The only other publicized French strikes were on Sept. 27 and Nov. 10.)
On Oct. 8, two French Rafale jets bombed what officials said was an ISIS training camp. It was believed to also house one of the country’s most-wanted jihadists, Salim Benghalem, who is responsible for supervising French jihadists who go to Syria to train with ISIS.
“We struck because we know that in Syria, particularly around Raqqa, there are training camps for foreign fighters whose mission is not to fight for Daesh in the Levant but to come to France, in Europe, to carry out attacks,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s minister of defense, said at the time.
It’s unclear whether any specific information prompted the rare French airstrike. But on Sunday, unnamed Iraqi officials told the Associated Press that they had passed along to France intelligence about an imminent attack on the country prior to the Paris assaults.
But two sources familiar with the intelligence told The Daily Beast that it was vague and general and didn’t offer any clear indication of when terrorists might strike.
In recent weeks, the coalition effort has largely focused on northern Iraq and helping Kurdish forces reclaim the city of Sinjar, in part to cut off the supply route from Raqqa and western Iraq.
That said, France enters this effort with a large advantage that likely allowed its pilots to conduct strikes just two days after the assault on Paris: access to U.S. and coalition intelligence on Raqqa.
In September 2014, the French air force deployed 12 fighter jets plus Atlantique 2 spy planes and KC-135 aerial tankers to two bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates—and it was from these bases that France launched its Nov. 15 assault on Raqqa, according to the country’s defense ministry.
The initial contingent of land-based warplanes included six twin-engine Rafales, which are among the newest and most technologically advanced fighters in the world. The Rafales are the first to carry France’s new BLU-126, a 250-kilogram bomb specifically tailored for use in crowded cities. A so-called low-collateral-damage weapon, the BLU-126 is compatible with GPS, laser, and infrared guidance and features a smaller blast radius than other munitions—so that, in theory, it only harms the intended target and spares nearby civilians.
Three each Mirage 2000Ds and Mirage 2000Ns—older, single-engine planes—rounded out the deployed air wing. It’s possible France has reinforced the early contingent with additional fighters.
Since June 2014, the U.S.-led coalition has kept a watchful eye over Raqqa, mostly with drones. That’s allowed the coalition to draft a long list of potential targets that it has conducted and France may now use in its war.
“This is a coalition effort. The French are conducting strikes with coalition support,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder told The Daily Beast.
During his phone calls with his French counterpart since Friday’s attack, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter discussed how the French could use U.S. intelligence for potential strikes, according to a U.S. defense official.
The last French military air campaign was during the 2011 Libyan intervention. But during that effort, which was initially designed to stop Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from killing civilians in the city of Benghazi, France struggled to support its airstrikes logistically and eventually sought U.S. help.
But before Friday, France did not consider itself at war in Libya or Syria. Then came the attacks that snuffed out 129 souls.
There are signs Paris intends to keep up or even escalate its aerial bombartment of ISIS. The French navy’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is en route to the Middle East with a contingent of up to 12 Rafales and nine older Super Etendard fighters plus support planes. The Charles de Gaulle is the only modern flattop outside of the U.S. Navy to boast catapults, which allow the ship to launch planes with full loads of weapons and fuel, maximizing their range and firepower.
The Charles de Gaulle’s air wing can fly as many as a dozen strike missions every day... for months. The vessel conducted air raids in Iraq from February to April before returning to base for maintenance.
Now the carrier and her escorts will join the French air-defense destroyer Cassard in the region. The Cassard has patrolled the Persian Gulf since September, using her sophisticated radar to help coordinate the air war on ISIS.
Until now, such air attacks haven’t exactly crippled the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But France may be able to do something that the coalition has so far been unwilling or unable to do: devote its resources to the caliphate’s de facto capital, Raqqa. When France became the first nation to join the U.S.-led effort in September 2014, the focus was on stopping ISIS’s spread in Iraq. The war eventually expanded to Syria but the coalition resources were always limited. When the effort was on Iraq, as it has been in recent weeks, the number of strikes in Syria dropped and vice versa.
If France uses all of those airplanes it has aboard the Charles de Gaulle and based in the region, it could conceivably have more manned fighter and attack aircraft in the sky than the U.S. does.
And those planes may be less constricted in their strikes.
The U.S.-led coalition has been particularly judicious about its targets in an effort to avoid civilian casualties. But the French campaign already has been more aggressive. According to one activist in Raqqa, no civilians had been killed by coalition strikes until Sunday, when two men died during France’s offensive.