“When you set out red lines, if you are unable to enforce them, then you decide to be weak,” French President Emmanuel Macron declared last summer. “Such is not my choice.” Macron’s repeated warnings that France was prepared to strike in case chemical weapons were used in Syria will be tested this week as at least 42 people have been found suffocated to death in rebel-held suburb of Douma by a chlorine like substance. On Sunday, President Donald Trump and Macron spoke on the phone and “agreed that the Assad regime must be held accountable for its continued human rights abuses.”
Trump’s promises must be considered against the background of his recently stated intention to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible. It’s not clear whether France can count on the United States to commit to the enforcement of any red lines against the Assad regime. But this should only concentrate Macron’s mind. If the United States abstains, he should prepare, for the sake of not only his personal credibility, but French national interests, to strike alone.
Unilateral French strikes won’t change the balance of power in Syria; the impact of such strikes would necessarily be smaller, both militarily and politically, than U.S. action. But the French army chief of staff stated last month France had the capacity to strike “autonomously.” And punitive strikes against facilities and institutions responsible for this latest massacre would not only honor Macron commitment to act upon the use of chemical weapons, but would strengthen credibility for France’s existing commitments in Syria.