France will remain “militarily engaged” in the Middle East through 2019 despite the announced U.S. withdrawal from Syria, President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday, January 17.
“The retreat from Syria announced by our American friend cannot make us deviate from our strategic objective: eradicating Daesh,” AFP reported Macron as saying in a speech at an army base in southern France, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
“We will remain militarily engaged in the Levant in the international coalition … over the coming year,” he said.
According to AFP, France has 1,200 military personnel deployed in the region including special forces in Syria, and they undertake air operations, artillery missions, and train the Iraqi army.
Macron also expressed his condolences for “our four American friends killed on Syrian soil” on Wednesday in a suicide bombing in Manbij in northern Syria claimed by ISIS. Fifteen other people were killed.
“The fight is not over,” Macron said.
He added that in the coming months France will “revise our global military deployment” but “we shall remain committed to participating in stabilization” in the Middle East region.
“Any rush to withdraw would be a mistake,” he added.
Macron had earlier criticized U.S. President Donald Trump for saying on December 19 that he would soon start to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. soldiers deployed in Syria.
The following day, France’s European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said that the French military would retain its presence in Syria “for now,” adding “the fight against terrorism is not over.”
The U.S. began the process of “deliberate withdrawal” from Syria on January 11, reportedly moving equipment but not personnel.
Named for the Shamal winds that regularly buffet the region, Operation Chammal, the French military mission in Syria and Iraq in support of the Global Coalition Against ISIS, was launched in September 2014.
It was initially intended to provide air support to the Iraqi armed forces fighting ISIS, but has evolved into an air component which conducts airstrkes and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, and a training component, advising Iraqi forces including the Kurdish Peshmerga.
In September 2015, the operation was extended to include Syria, from where ISIS planned attacks on targets in Europe.
France has around 1,100 personnel and 10 Rafale multirole fighter jets deployed on Operation Chammal, according to a count published in July 2018. It also deploys an Atlantic 2 maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, a C-135 transport aircraft, an E-3F AWACS early warning aircraft and a naval frigate on a non-permanent basis.
“Operation Chammal can also be reinforced by a special forces detachment. The organization is regularly adjusted depending on the circumstances,” a spokesperson for the French Armed Forces previously told The Defense Post.
Since September 2016, the 150-strong Task Force Wagram, an artillery battle group armed with three Caesar 155 mm howitzers, has supported ground operations in Iraq and Syria. It is currently positioned near the Iraq-Syria border, supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces ground operation against the last pocket of territory controlled by ISIS around Hajin in southeastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province.
In Baghdad, Task Force Narvik trains Iraq Counter Terrorism Service commandos, while Task Force Monsabert train and advise the staff of the 6 Iraqi Infantry Division, whose primary mission is the defense of of the city.
French personnel are also among Coalition personnel in Kuwait and Qatar.
French military presence in northern Syria
France has also deployed troops to territory controlled by the SDF in northern Syria.
In late March, there were a number of unconfirmed reports of French troops in Tal Abyad, a town bordering Turkey that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to include in an expanded Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
After meeting Macron in Paris, officials from northern Syria said they were told that France was planning to “new French troops to Manbij,” but Macron’s office did not confirm this statement.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in April said that French special forces had “reinforced” U.S. troops in Syria.
French officials would not confirm a special forces presence in Manbij, but SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel said in May that French forces were integral to the operation against ISIS, Jazeera Storm.
Macron in April claimed he had convinced Trump to keep troops inside the country longer and send additional forces to Manbij.
After Trump’s December withdrawal announcement, and amid renewed fears of a Turkey-led military operation in northern Syria, Riad Darar, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, and SDC Executive Council co-chair Ilham Ahmed visited Paris for talks.
Ahmed told The Defense Post that French officials were receptive to their request for a no-fly zone over northern Syria, but said they needed to consult with the European Union and gain Washington’s permission first.
With reporting from AFP