12 Jun 2018

Franco-British-American Relations in Syria and Iran

Christopher Griffin

French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the United States for three days in late April showed a somewhat surprising effort by the French head of state to demonstrate a close friendship with U.S. President Donald Trump. In the U.S. media, more attention was paid to the so-called ‘bromance’ between the two leaders and the contents of the state dinner than the actual policy discussions. Behind the pomp of the state visit, however, the complex nature of the relationship between the two countries was evident.

French public opinion has been negative on a number of domestic and foreign policy matters involving President Trump. The most recent expression of this was the negative reaction to Trump’s comments at a National Rifle Association meeting regarding the November 2015 Paris attacks. Trump mimicked the attackers, and claimed (not for the first time) that if there had been armed civilians in Paris, the terrorists could have been stopped before killing a large number of people. The French Foreign Ministry published a message condemning Trump’s statements and asking the American President to “respect the memory of the victims of the attacks of 13 November.” On the other hand, following the knife attack in Paris on 12 May, Trump praised France, saying “this kind of sickness & hatred is not compatible with a loving, peaceful, & successful country!” This more balanced message may have been Trump’s response to the earlier controversies about his response to terrorism in French.

Beyond the immediate disputes in the media regarding Franco-American relations, there was a fundamental contradiction in the area of cooperation in international security issues. Nine days before Macron’s visit to the U.S., France, the U.S., and the UK hit targets in Syria related to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program. This missile strike showed a considerable amount of transatlantic solidarity regarding the war in Syria. At the same time, during Macron’s visit to the U.S., the French President criticized Trump’s stance on the Iran nuclear weapons agreement of 2015, and tried, unsuccessfully, to stop Trump from withdrawing the U.S. from that accord.

Two things stand out here. First, it is an error to discuss Franco-American security cooperation without including Britain in the discussion. Second, transatlantic cooperation shows both a certain continuity as well as pragmatism. France, the UK, and the U.S. see each other as their main partners for action, but decisions made by one country does not imply automatic compliance for the other two. Solidarity often gives way to national interests.

On the other hand, the fact that any close military cooperation continues between the three countries could be considered something of a surprise. As mentioned above, Donald Trump is disliked in France, and there have been rumors that Trump would avoid London on his visit in July due to planned protests by human rights groups. Brexit is supported by Trump, but presents significant problems for the future of Franco-British relations in every issue area. In spite of all of these problems, the three countries still work together in foreign policy and military affairs, but in a selective fashion.

The following sections of this piece will look at the two issues mentioned above, Syria and Iran, and why there has been cooperation in the former but not in the latter.

The Syria Missile Strikes

On 13 April 2018, the U.S., France, and the UK attacked three chemical weapons sites in Syria.[1] This was not the first time that the U.S. had attacked Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as the year before, Trump had ordered a strike that, according to the President, destroyed 20% of the Syrian Air Force.

Trump explained the April strikes in a speech, saying:

“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States. The combined American, British and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of national power: military, economic and diplomatic. We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”

Several aspects of this statement are important. First, it is clear that the Syrian regime (and not Daesh) that poses a threat to U.S. interests in this case. Second, the term, “vital national security interest” indicates a continuing commitment of the U.S. to stop the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), which is in continuity with previous administrations, the George W. Bush presidency in particular. Third, it is a coalition response to the problem, and is a grand strategic project, marshalling all “national power” to stop Assad from using chemical weapons. Trump stops short, however, of calling for regime change in Syria, probably due to the Russian and Iranian support for the Assad regime as well as the disastrous experience in Iraq after 2003.

Later in his speech, Trump used religious terminology to justify the strikes, saying:

“today the nations of Britain, France and the United States of America have marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality…we pray that God will bring comfort to those suffering in Syria. We pray that God will guide the whole region toward a future of dignity and of peace.”

The religious nature of the comments here, and the implicit inclusion of Britain and France in a Christian mission to bring peace to Syria has gone largely uncommented in the media. The French Government, given the country’s lay tradition and large Muslim population, was likely uncomfortable with these statements, but did not comment.

Explaining the strikes in an interview with a French newspaper in early May, Macron put it into the context of France’s relations with Trump. The French President stated that the relationship with Trump needed to “focus on political-military issues and the fight against terrorism.” It may seem as a surprise that Macron sees transatlantic cooperation in primarily military terms, but it is important to note that Western Europe and the U.S. have always cooperated the most effectively in military and security affairs.

Macron was criticized in France about the fact that the strikes were carried out without UN authorization. He countered this with the comment that France’s “credibility” was at stake and that UN Resolution 2118 (27 September 2013) did in fact authorize the use of force in the case that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own population.

Unlike Trump, Macron used the language of honor, solidarity and duty instead of religion to justify the strikes before the European Parliament on April 17, saying:

“We are fighting a war against terrorists. Bachar al-Assad is fighting a war against his own people. Three countries have intervened against him, and I want to be clear about this, for the honor of the international community…three chemical weapons production sites were destroyed in a multilateral, targeted manner, without any loss of life.”

While Macron does not explicitly reference the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, a 2005 UN initiative to stop regimes from committing crimes against humanity, his comments certainly call it to mind. The Chapter VII use of force in Responsibility to Protect, however, has to be authorized by the Security Council, which was not the case here.

Theresa May also faced opposition in the UK. Unlike in France, where the French President has more power over foreign and defense policy than any other democratically-elected leader, the British Prime Minister had to bring the issue to a vote in Parliament (even after the fact). The Government easily won the vote (314 to 36) forced by the opposition the week after the strikes on whether or not the House of Commons had sufficiently debated the Syria issue. Certain polls show, however, that the British public does not back the UK Government’s decision.

The UK’s reluctance to strike Assad after earlier chemical attacks in 2013 is well-known, and some commentators have said that the no vote was decisive in forcing President Barack Obama to take no action at the time. France was also unable to strike Assad without U.S. support. Why did the British Government change its mind in April 2018?

The Prime Minister’s argument rested on the idea that there was “no practicable alternative to the use of force.” She mentioned the need to protect the population, but also the norms of the international community, saying

“we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons…we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or anywhere else in the world.”

The argument about the importance of international norms regarding the use of chemical weapons actually becomes one of national security. May is saying that if Assad is allowed to use chemical weapons with impunity, at some point those weapons will be used in the UK. At this point, the strikes are clearly in the British national interest in defending the country from attack.

The three countries all intervened with the same goal, deterring Assad from using chemical weapons again. Regime change was not included in the objectives, as the strikes were very limited. What should be clear, however, is that all three countries had different reasons for taking action, which cannot be limited to a general fear of WMDs. This becomes even clearer when looking at the case of Iran.

Discord over Iran

On 8 May, President Trump announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the agreement signed with Iran by his predecessor Barack Obama. In the 2015 agreement, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear ambitions in exchange for a relaxing of sanctions. Trump’s motives for leaving the treaty are not fully clear, but it has been suggested that the American President did not believe that the agreement went far enough, in particular in that it did not limit Iran’s development of ballistic missile technology. Trump was also concerned about what he believes to be Iran’s support for terrorist groups. U.S. allies in the region, in particular the main rivals of Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, also strongly supported Trump’s decision, which was seen as way to weaken Iran.

In this case, unlike in the situation in Syria, there was considerable discord between France and Britain and the U.S. over the Iranian issue. Even though it remained a WMD problem, France and Britain wanted to stay in the agreement, and surprisingly for the UK, turned toward the European Union as a basis to continue to work with Iran. Despite Brexit, the UK participated in the foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on 15 May as an EU member. This may indicate that while Britain is trying to separate itself economically from the EU Single Market, close cooperation in foreign and security policy may continue between Britain the EU.

Prime Minister May further reinforced Britain’s solidarity with the EU against the U.S. decision in a telephone conversation with Trump. A communiqué from Downing Street on 11 May stated that:

“The Prime Minister reiterated the Government’s position on the Iran nuclear deal, noting that we and our European partners remain fully committed to ensuring the deal is upheld, as the best way of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The Prime Minister raised the potential impact of US sanctions on those firms which are currently conducting business in Iran.”

This is further evidence of the pragmatic approach to the alliance between the U.S. and the UK, in that the UK did not hesitate to turn toward France and the EU when it saw that its interests were threatened by the U.S. decision. Economic interests are clearly at play here, as the Prime Minister indicated that British businesses will lose money due to U.S. sanctions.

In France, President Macron had already criticized Trump’s stance on the Iran agreement during his April visit, but failed to change the American President’s decision. Macron then described the changes of mind by Trump as “insane,” specifically referencing the Iran deal. It is striking that the French turned toward the UK and Germany so soon after the state visit to the U.S. The leaders of all three countries quickly indicated that they would not pull out of the deal, and would continue to negotiate with Iran. The joint statement also highlighted the fact that the Iran agreement was also enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which is cited as a “binding legal framework.”

France has clear interests in keeping ties open with Iran, and like with the UK, they are above all economic. The French Government has shown open irritation with the U.S. decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran, and the American determination to make its European partners abide by those sanctions. The French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called the U.S. the “world’s economic policeman”, and indicated that French trade would continue with Iran. A number of French companies have large contracts in Iran, including Airbus, Total, Renault and Peugeot. The French economy stands to lose a lot of money if France is forced to comply with the reinstated U.S. sanctions on Iran, and that explains why Macron was ready to stand up to Trump on this issue. Like with the UK, France also had most of Europe with him on the issue, which points to a significant transatlantic divide over Iran.

France and the UK, however, have not chosen to take sides for Iran against the U.S. If that was the case, the two countries would not have carried out airstrikes against the Syrian regime, a major ally of Iran. Some other commentators, such as Elmar Brok in the European Parliament in particular, have said that “Western unity is crumbling.” This is an exaggeration. As mentioned above, transatlantic cooperation functioned well in the strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons program because national interests were aligned. With Iran, however, national interests are not the same, and France and the UK have far more to lose than the U.S. if sanctions are reintroduced.


What is important to retain from the two cases mentioned above is that transatlantic cooperation, whether it be military or diplomatic, is not automatic. France, the UK and the U.S. have separate and distinct national interests that lead to a pragmatic approach to international issues. What is also clear, however, is that Trump and Brexit have not led to a wholesale collapse of transatlantic relations and cooperation. The case-by-case approach to conflicts is a longer-term approach that transcends different presidents and even EU membership. France, the UK and the U.S. are allies, and will likely remain that way, but each country will choose when and where to contribute to that alliance.


[1] There was some initial controversy over whether the Assad regime had in fact used chemical weapons at Saraqib on 4 February 2018. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a report on 15 May that said that chlorine “was likely used as a chemical weapon,” based on evidence gathered in Syria.

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