France laid out a new posture for itself in discussions in the Gulf this week, chiding the Americans for not standing up to Iran's threats against Saudi Arabia and other countries. Paris now wants to play a more robust role in maritime security as Washington's influence declines across the region.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly condemned America for leaving the Iran deal and also condemned Iran at the Manama Dialogue confab in Bahrain over the weekend. The conference is organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies and has foreign ministers and leaders from the region, as well as security and defense officials, in attendance.
"We've seen deliberate, gradual US disengagement," she said. She also slammed former president Barack Obama for leaving the "fighter jets on the tarmac," according to France24, a reference to the US decision in 2013 not to punish Bashar Assad's regime in Syria for chemical weapons attacks.
The French conjured up bad memories from 2013 when, according to Le Nouvel Observateur, then-French president Francois Hollande had prepared Rafale jets and SCALP cruise missiles to punish Assad. Targets included the Fourth Armored Division, and missiles and commander centers. But the US decided to back down and the planes didn't fly. The US, UK and France carried out airstrikes in 2017 and 2018 against Syria, but they were much smaller and less consequential than what might have occurred in 2013.
Paris is disappointed by the lack of US response to Iran's violent provocations.
Parly says that Paris was disappointed to see a lack of US response to the September attack on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq facility. It followed Iranian attacks on ships and a US drone. The French say the US is retreating in the face of threats.
"When the mining of ships went unanswered, a drone got shot," Parly said. "When that in turn went unanswered, major oil facilities were bombed. This is dangerous even for those who think they gain – because bold is never far from daring, and daring never far from reckless."
According to the official text released by the Minister of Armies of the French Republic, she said that the French had watched "images of bearded generals inspecting the debris of a US drone shot down over the Gulf," a reference to Iran's June 20 downing of the Global Hawk. She called it a "mighty piece of technology," and implied it was shamefully paraded on Iran's Fars News.
America is weak: that appeared to be the message. The signs in the region "hint at the severe weakening of an order based on cooperation; that mix of US presence, norms, a degree of multilateralism, some stability of governance and a great deal of deterrence," according to Parly.
Gone. Gone. Gone, are those days. The cornerstone is shaking, the French say. "The edifice has started shaking and opportunists rush in," Parly said, adding that the change in the US posture is so great that is appears unprecedented, "probably irrespective of who wins the next election."
This was no ordinary speech, but a shot across the bow of US policy – and a signal to the region that France is concerned and wants to play a deeper role. The French defense minister noted how aggressive countries are exploiting the vacuum in power, noting that Turkish is now being spoken in Ayn Issa in Syria, Russian is being spoken in Benghazi in Libya and the Chinese are Djibouti. This is important because France is the historical colonial power of Syria; French played a role in the 2011 revolution in Syria; and France has key relations with Djibouti, where it has a naval base. Paris is concerned that other countries are moving into French areas of influence.
France is disgusted by the way the Assad regime and its backers, as well as Turkey, have abused people in Syria. It was shocked by the Turkish invasion and the attacks on Kurds, and the French president has sought to discuss what it means for NATO. The Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council are divided, France says. And the Iran Deal has been dealt "blows" while international laws are ignored in "Palestine" – an apparent reference to new US policies on Israeli communities in the West Bank. France is watching carefully the protests in Iran and also the generation that is rising up in Lebanon, which Parly pointed out had been born after the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War.
France has 240,000 citizens in the Middle East and 2,800 soldiers. It says that it will not remain distant. The defense minister flew to the UAE after Bahrain to discuss its defense agreements and three military bases.
"I have sent a robust package of advance warning, including sophisticated radar and tens of operators to deter drone and cruise missile attacks," Parly said. France stands ready to help guard the Gulf. The country also says that it will continue to "strike relentlessly" at ISIS, and that it is concerned about the Syrian regime's operations in Idlib.
The French official flew to Doha in Qatar on Monday to continue discussions about regional security. She met with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defense Affairs, Dr. Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah.
This may herald a new French spring in the Middle East.
"We have many friends," Parly said. France is helping to lead a European maritime surveillance mission. "It will be separate from, but coordinated with the US presence."
The new maritime effort will be led from the French base in Abu Dhabi according to the Defense Post. She met Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on Saturday.
This is a new French spring in the Middle East. "I believe France can help devise cooperation solutions for the challenges of tomorrow, and not only the austere agenda of who fights whom and who deters whom," Parly said.
This will span a whole area from the Gulf to Syria and North Africa, where France plays a key role fighting extremists in the Sahel. This is important because the Quai d'Orsay, or French Foreign Ministry, warned travelers against travel to Burkina Faso. 400 French soldiers, as part of Operation Barkhane, have trained 4,000 Senegalese since 2014 as well.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.