As French President Francois Hollande visits Washington and meets President Barack Obama and his administration, the talk in town by think tanks and media focuses on the declared joint interest between the two powers in fighting terrorism in Africa, particularly in North Africa and the Sahel region. Optimists claim Hollande and Obama, both on the left side of the political spectrum in their respective countries, can agree on many domestic social and economic issues but not on as many foreign policy matters. Paris and Washington have had several issues of disagreement regarding crises in the Greater Middle East over the past few years. The Hollande visit in 2014, however, seems to seek common ground in some areas—particularly in counterterrorism.
On Syria, France displayed more determination than the United States to support the opposition, particularly in the earliest stages of the revolt in 2011. Over the three years of the Arab Spring, Paris worked hard at the UN Security Council and with Arab moderates to support the opposition, mostly the Free Syria Army, to topple Assad. Last summer, the French stood staunchly by the Obama administration when it appeared to be readying for a strike on Syria’s chemical weapons, Paris was disappointed when Washington made an about face and asked the Russians to find a political solution. France found itself in the unattractive position of the only great power rooting for military strikes, a position it has retreated from since.
On Iran, France also was surprised with the speed with which the Obama administration declared its initiative for a nuclear deal. As was the case with Syria, France remained tough on the issue of Iran’s nuclear challenge only to find itself somewhat abandoned—as did Saudi Arabia and other Arab moderates. The strategic assessment in Paris did not predict the depth of the Obama commitment to a deal with the Iranian regime. France is now realizing that Washington has engaged in a direction where confrontation with the Ayatollahs—other than in narrative—has been abandoned. Some credit Paris’ strong stance on Assad and Iran’s regime to the heavy financial investment of Qatar in France as the rich Gulf monarchy has vowed to topple Assad while also being an active supporter of the Syrian opposition. Hollande’s options are very limited on the Levant’s issues. France has historical (and direct) interests in Lebanon, which is dominated by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Washington, however, has no intention to engage in a third war anywhere from Baghdad to Beirut—as long as it considers a deal with Iran a high priority and an attainable goal. Paris’ only option is to convince Qatar to lower expectations on regime change in Syria and toe the Washington line east of the Mediterranean while waiting for the Obama administration bet on a rapprochement with Iran to bear fruit—or to fail.
On Africa, however, France cannot follow the American lead; France must lead or fall. What is at stake in North Africa and the Sahel is France’s global strategic depth. From Morocco to Tunisia, with the powerful Algeria in between, a greater Maghreb is struggling between Islamists and seculars. It is in Paris’ national interest to see the seculars and moderates win the day. Otherwise, Islamist-led governments south of the Mediterranean may block French interests and cut the European country off from Saharan and sub-Sahara Francophone Africa. France is somewhat relieved that Tunisia has momentarily moved away from Nahda’s Islamist regime and is satisfied that Morocco’s real power continues to be in the hands of the King not his Islamist cabinet—and that Algeria remains out of Islamist control…even though its government is not a great friend of the French. Ironically, the Obama administration has so far stood on the other side of the divide. Similar to its partnership with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Washington favored Nahda in Tunisia and their Islamist comrades in Morocco. Hollande and Obama will not find any common ground in North Africa, particularly because the U.S. administration continues to back –though not publicly—the Ikhwan in Egypt even while that country is moving away from the Islamists and by ripple effect from the Obama administration. In fact, one should not be surprised that Egypt and France will find themselves in the same battle trench—against the Islamists.
Paris’ greatest strategic challenge remains in the Sahel region, which stretches from Senegal to Eastern Sudan. Al Qaeda and its Jihadists have been penetrating the area from Mauritania to Chad, to the Central African Republic CAR, using the large depots of weapons controlled by Salafi militias in Libya since the fall of Gaddafi and profiting from weak central states in the region. France had to send an expeditionary force into Mali in 2013 to stop al Qaeda from seizing the country. This year, French troops were dispatched to CAR. Washington is providing logistical and intelligence support to the French, hence cooperation is on against al Qaeda. But the breadth of such anti-Jihadist alliance between France and the United States has to become much more comprehensive and pursue not just the terrorists, but the ideological roots of the terror networks. The Obama administration has decided to ignore the ideological factor and refuses to mobilize civil society forces to fight the Jihadists. Hollande may seek a greater logistical support from Obama to pursue the radicals in the Sahel, but he will find little commitment to a full war against the Jihadist movement in that region. Washington wants to go only against what it calls “the core” of AQ, i.e., the men who actually worked with Bin Laden. What Hollande will not receive from Obama is systematic support for a war against the AQ branches, affiliates and ideologically motivated militants. Washington’s advisors have, unfortunately, convinced the Obama administration that the terror problem will be eliminated if a dialogue can be established with the Islamist militias. Africa’s Jihadists will be solely a French problem—at least till 2016.
Dr Walid Phares is the author of The Coming Revolution. His forthcoming book, The Lost Spring will be published in March 2014. Dr Phares is a co-Secretary
General of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group on Counter Terrorism TAG. He has introduced his latest book in French, Du Printemps Arabe a l'Automne Islamiste (Hugo Press) at the European Parliament last November