Will France Lead the U.S. into Syria?

If the U.S. is "leading from behind," they're following the French. First in Iran, Libya, and Mali and now, some hope, in Syria

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Philippe Wojazer / REUTERS

Protesters march past banners that read "Stop Massacres in Syria" in front of the Pantheon in Paris, during a demonstration against violence in Syria on March 15, 2013

This week, E.U. ministers are meeting to discuss lifting the arms embargo to Syria as the French and Brits prepare to begin arms shipments to aid the Syrian opposition.

“The European Union arms embargo is now backfiring,” says a French official. “Ideally, we’d like the European Union to lift the embargo. But if that doesn’t happen, we’d be ready to take our responsibility. We’re going to engage in-depth discussions with our E.U. partners in the coming days.” Not all of the 27 E.U. countries want to lift the embargo. Germany, for example, has expressed reservations. Flouting an E.U. embargo, as the French seem prepared to do, is rare for a member country — militarily it hasn’t been done since the Bosnian war.

Meanwhile, a debate rages within the Obama Administration about whether to match France and the U.K.’s bid to hasten President Bashar Assad’s end. The Obama Administration just this month announced it would provide direct humanitarian support to the Syrian opposition, two years after the civil war began. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that “the United States does not stand in the way of other countries that made a decision to provide arms, whether it’s France or Britain or others.” The U.S. has tacitly allowed Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to arm the Syrian rebels for more than a year. But, increasingly, some in the Administration are arguing that moderate Syrians need to be bolstered — many of the Gulf weapons have ended up in the hands of Islamists — and the U.S. must pick a horse if it hopes to have sway over any post-Assad government. “There is a debate within the Administration,” says a European official. “John Kerry, in particular, is doing his best to have a more assertive American position in Syria.”

The hesitation to arm the Syrian opposition has always been the likelihood that the weaponry could be used in ethnic cleansing post-Assad or against Israel. Opponents point to how arming the Libyan opposition has destabilized the entire Maghreb, which is now swimming in weapons. One counterintuitive solution to this problem being floated among the Europeans is to provide heavy antiaircraft and antitank weaponry, which would be much less mobile than light arms and therefore easier to track.

This wouldn’t be the first time France has dragged the U.S. into a conflict. As my colleague Michael Crowley pointed out in January, France took the lead on Libya and Mali. On Iran, Paris is also the most hawkish member of the P5+1, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France plus Germany. France has consistently pushed the other members not to cave too soon to Iran and to hold a tough line in negotiations. It was French President Nicholas Sarkozy who first suggested a European embargo of Iranian oil, inspiring the U.S. Congress to also pass tougher sanctions.

France’s interventionist bent has crossed different Administrations from Sarkozy’s to the current French President Francois Hollande’s. So, what’s lighting France’s fire? Public opinion: France’s headlines are dominated by the tragedy in the former French colony. “We are close,” says a French official, “to the worst-case scenario.” If the Obama Administration is indeed “leading from behind,” then it would seem the country it is following these days is France.