Britain, France and a Syrian Crisis: Once more into the breach?

Perspectives Internationales 27/03/2013 0
Britain, France and a Syrian Crisis: Once more into the breach?

 The ever-increasing tensions and rising body count in Syria raise the prospects of calls for international intervention. Britain and France have often been in the vanguard of similar action and the issue raises questions over European defence capabilities, defence economics and bi-lateral relations that underpin the framework for possible intervention – as the international community again stares into the breach. Here is Matthew Ogg’s view on the topic.

‘Franco-British relations over the two centuries since Waterloo could be seen as a transformation from enmity to alliance and finally partnership…Today they are the only European states that maintain ambitions for a world role. Conceivably, both might prefer other partners, but in the world of the 2010s the reality is that we have only each other.’

Professor Robert Tombs (Luff: 2012)

As the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war throws the spotlight of analysis upon the ethics of intervention by the international community, a contemporary crisis continues to unravel in Syria as the prospect of a third year of civil war commences. Iraq is a cautionary tale in how not to conduct an intervention – whether one agrees with the outcome or not – and additionally marked a particular low point in Franco-British relations as Chirac and Blair clashed in the shadows of the United States. Iraq further cast a pall over the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy. Today, a different and less idealistic specter is emerging. One that suggests a new pragmatic paradigm has engulfed a paralyzed European Union, stuck by economic hardship and short of political will. Syria is the latest in a growing line of humanitarian crises to which Britain and France are increasingly and defiantly refusing to capitulate, yet the narrative has been shaped by the fundamental failure of the European Union to build upon the framework of European defence both at home and in the EU ‘neighbourhood,’ which increasingly appears to extend to the Middle East.

The UK has deployed troops in no less than seven zones of foreign conflict in the last three decades with robust public support – Iraq the notable exception.[1] Sierra Leone is a prime example of successful intervention, with ongoing aid to the nation, helping with drinking water projects today longer after the 2000 operation. As the rolling media coverage of modern warzone journalism bring the horrors of Syria into European living rooms diplomatic tensions increase. Britain is increasingly vocal on the international scene, with Foreign Secretary William Hague raising the issue of Syria with his Russian opposite Sergei Lavrov in London within the last few weeks. The Prime Minister raised the 70,000 dead from the despatch box during Prime Ministers Questions noting efforts with Hollande to reconsider the arms embargo and stance to a Syrian opposition, which Britain officially recognises.

The crisis raises several streams regarding European defence which have remained constant underneath the ongoing eurozone crisis; the ongoing failure of CSDP, the changing economics of defence and the pragmatic marriage of Britain with France. As patience begins to fray, could this alliance eventually step into the breach?

The failure of CSDP

Britain and France continue to be the foundation of wider European defence initiatives as ‘much of the European continent remains on strategic vacation.’ (Lindley-French, 2010) Put simply, many of the issues regarding the deployment of any EU force ultimately reduce to a solitary repetitive argument. Despite all the advances from Maastricht through to evolving a legal identity post-2004 offering characteristics and powers of a state, the EU is not in fact so. Sovereignty remains concentrated in national capitals within their respective executives: bargaining reigns supreme. The process of synthesizing the needs of 27 member states – 28 with the upcoming accession of Croatia – each with their own local and international history and attitudes to the use of force, is extraordinarily complex. (Howorth & Menon: 2009)

The EU is a ‘pacta de contrahendo’ designed specifically to constrain its members (Schroeder, in Howorth & Menon: 2009) while additional difficulties are created by the Athena mechanism. Athena is prohibitive and only nations that choose to contribute to an expedition pay. ‘Can’t pay/won’t pay’ is an inherent feature of negotiations, and in times of austerity arguably a bridge too far for many member states. The lowest common denominator increases the chance a mission will get off the ground – a brief glance at the missions undertaken under the EU umbrella is enough to confirm they are all of low risk in terms of casualties, narrow and acutely defined in scale and scope. The most successful missions, such as Artemis in the Congo and Atalanta – the ongoing Gulf of Aden naval deployment – have been successful without creating a platform for significant step changes.

For both the CSDP and wider collaborative efforts which have been attempted such as the European Defence Agency, the words of former EDA Head, Nick Witney, are scathing:

‘So much rhetorical effort and so much staff time have been expended over the past dozen or more years, with so little to show for it, or so it now seems, that a growing fatalism is increasingly detectable whenever the idea of some new effort to advance [the CSDP] is broached.’ (Witney, in Giegerich & Nicoll: 2012). The bilateral solution is therefore one of the few viable alternatives.

Franco-British defence co-operation

Much of the British national myth of military power is grounded in victories over an ancient rival, the French Republic. Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo are portrayed as iconic British moments. However, in the modern era there has been a growing alignment between two nations in, allegedly, relative and parallel decline. France is the ‘EU’s only other world class military power’ (Lindley-French: 2010) and Britain’s ‘only peer power on the continent.’ (Valasek: 2011) With a US pivot to the Asia Pacific – including the redeployment of US forces from German bases to tropical Australia – such allies should not be underestimated and offers pragmatic solutions in a challenging security climate.

The Franco-British Treaty in 2010 was the first realisation of this, seeking sensible co-operation and synergy with minimal effect to US-NATO relations. Objectives include alleviating the exorbitant costs of modern defence with a nation equally predisposed to act militarily. One of the key proponents, former UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox, sums up much of the argument that drove him in favour of bilateral relations :

“Economic co-operation between France and UK was logical, as between the two nations we account for over 50% of defence spending on the continent and around 65% of defence research spending.” (Fox: 2012)

 There are regular liaisons between the two across various platforms including the Senior Level Group, High-Level Working Group, and Parliamentarians (Chatham House:2013). At an operational level, 10 cadets from the École Militaire Interarmes de Saint-Cyr Coetquidan were recently given a taste of life in the British Army’s rapid reaction force with 16 Air Assault Brigade. (MoD: 2013)

UK defence spending for 2010 was $57,796m on par with France’s $52,005m amounting to GDP spends of 2.57% and 2.03% respectively; and above the NATO 2% threshold. Crucially, the political will exists in both the UK and France to maintain and deploy adequate forces, and is precisely what critics would argue the EU lacks. Where synthesizing the competing needs of EU member states is a near impossible feat, it is a far simpler prospect for two nations similarly disposed to co-operate to great effect. Within the EU or NATO vehicles there is a growing alignment. Even on different sides of the political spectrum consensus has emerged since the election of Francois Hollande, in place of Cameron’s previous opposite number; the right leaning Nicolas Sarkozy. Libya exemplifies the relationship of the former, but Mali shows this has not ended with a change in Government as both leaders have ramped up the rhetoric on Syria.

The Economics of Defence

The sovereign debt crisis has played havoc with defence. NATO remains at the bedrock of many members security framework. Yet the NATO Libya mission – according to Robert Gates – saw only a third of the nations who voted for action participate in the strike mission. (Military Balance: 2012) Many simply lacked the capability to do so. Britain and France maintain a broad-spectrum, multi-purpose force and as transparent, democratic sovereign nations under the terms of NATO membership. Neither have been immune; as recently as Budget 2013 the Ministry of Defence will face another cut of 1% to departmental spending.

New Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Houghton, will have to contend with an ever-tighter budget and the drawdown from Afghanistan amongst other challenges. The rising cost of modern warfare, unconventional security challenges such as non-state terrorism and a public clamouring for welfare have altered the dynamic of national security. No existential threat truly exists in the post-Cold War world that might galvanise the populace – even the shock of 9/11 did not lead to significant defence spending in Europe. All nations have been forced to reconsider spending while budget cuts have impacted operability. Despite defence austerity Britain can still act should it choose.

Former Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd coined the famous boxing metaphor that Britain ‘punches above its weight.’ (The Sunday Times: 1992) Whilst the British Empire has dissolved, this island of 60 million people in a world of nearly 7 billion still looks to undertake an international role above its station.  British forces have been engaged more in the last two decades than at any time since total war raged on the continent. Defence spending has suffered but our Forces maintain a prominence and popularity that protects them to a degree matched only by the National Health Service and schools. Britain has long sought ‘both guns and butter’ and Governments have been meticulously cautious not to confront the public with a direct choice between aircraft carriers and aspirin. (The Economist: 2010)

France – our nearest counterpart in military scale and scope – has been forced followed a similar proclivity for reducing defence expenditure successfully retaining the 2% threshold demanded by NATO – a spending floor which Germany and others have fallen below. Neither Britain nor France have defaulted on international obligations in tough financial times retaining the capability to intervene and project power globally at short notice – if not indefinitely.

Sacrifices have been made – such as aircraft carrier capacity and the early retirement of the Harrier jet fleet – but longer term benefits will eventuate with shortfalls mitigated by allies. US retrenchment plays its part, thus France is perhaps the natural choice.

 Libya, Mali… Syria?

The success in Libya paints a brighter future for both NATO and Franco-British politico-military relations underpinned, but not dominated by, US logistical support. It provides a blueprint for a Syria mission should NATO build consensus on which the US was unwilling to front. Mali provides an example of a mission without, that could be a foundation for a ‘coalition of the willing’ or more importantly, a ‘coalition of the relevant.’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind opposed Iraq on precisely this difference. Iraq was a coalition, for the most part, of smaller nations supporting Britain and the US with objections from important Western powers like the French. Were regional stakeholders – in this case Turkey, Jordan and Iraq – in favour, the credibility of any mission would rise immeasurably even if a UN Security Resolution was hindered by a Sino-Russian block. Mali too shows Franco-British synergy, with British C-17 transporter supporting French troops on the ground. There is also significant institutional knowledge of desert and urban warfare earned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Syria is not Libya however. The factions, religious divisions and historic politics differ vastly, and the removal of Assad opens as many questions as it potentially solves. The body count and scale of violence rises unabated however, and those with capacity to act look on with growing shame at an escalating humanitarian crisis. Russia and China have shifted little in their demeanor over the last two years, nor are they likely to adopt a different posture in the absence of extreme unexpected action. Lord Williams of Baglan has argued there is no end in sight at present, and that as the unrest continues a satisfactory outcome will become increasingly elusive. (Chatham House: 2013)

The US has little appetite for a new war – much as was the case in 2011 – as it faces its own economic reforms of a Cold War military. Incoming US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has been charged with driving swinging cuts of his own. The only remaining nations with the power and will to act do at least have a history of successful collaboration and shortening fuse on continued inaction.


Few nations truly possess the capabilities to project power abroad and the UK is one of this select groups. Britain alone could have ‘defeated any of the adversaries NATO has fought in the past 20 years’ (Schake: 2012) just at a greater economic and human cost.  The UK is an outward looking nation which has shaped, and been shaped, by its global history. Likewise, France maintains a spectrum of force with similar ties and interests from West to East, thus the question latterly posed is often the most fundamental. When civil wars rage or humanitarian crises occur, do those who have the capability to act not therefore have an implicit responsibility to do so? Simply, if not us, then who?

Britain will not engage alone. With France however, the paradigm shifts. Should two permanent members of the UN Security Council with diplomat standing act in unison, action could be possible if conditions in Syria deteriorate further. As the conflict rages near Jordanian borders for example and refugees spill into camps,

Often repeated at such times, Edmund Burke – a pillar of modern conservatism – offered the maxim that evil triumphs when good men stand idle. In light of the detail failings of CDSP, US retrenchment and an increasing humanitarian case for intervention options are thin on the ground. With a Conservative Prime Minister at the helm Burke’s words may not go unheeded. Cameron and Hollande have lain down a gauntlet at the feet of Europe providing the strategic leadership for those who might follow, but it is not so farfetched that they may go it alone, together. Once more into the breach mes amis? 

Matthew Ogg

Matthew OGG is a public affairs professional based near Westminster, UK. He previously worked in the think tank environment in Australia prior to undertaking a Masters in Politics and Government in the European Union at the London School of Economics where he focused on international relations, defence and security. His wider interests incude EU-US relations and the future of European security.


Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, Mette. 2003. Why a Common Security and Defence Policy is Bad for Europe. Survival 45 (3): 193-206

Fox, Liam, in Julian Lindley-French, ‘Britain and France: A Dialogue of Decline?’, Chatham House, Sept 2010

Gomis, Benoît, ‘Franco-British Defence and Security Treaties: Entente While it Lasts?’, Chatham House, March 2011

Howorth, Jolyon and Anand Menon, ‘Still Not Pushing Back : Why the European Union Is Not Balancing the United States’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 53: 727, 2009

Krotz, Ulrich, ‘Momentum and Impediments: Why Europe Won’t Emerge as a Full Political Actor on the World Stage Soon, Journal of Common Market Studies, 47, 3, 2009

Lindley-French, Julian, ‘Britain and France: A Dialogue of Decline?’, Chatham House, Sept 2010

The Military Balance 2012, International Institute for Strategic Studies, vol. 112:1

O’Donnell, Clara Marina, ‘Britain and France should not give up on EU defence co-operation’, Centre for European Reform Policy Brief, Oct 2011

Schake, Kori, ‘US retrenchment is right and overdue’ in Tomas Valasek, ed., ‘All alone? What US retrenchment means for Europe and NATO’, Centre for European Reform, Feb 2012

Shroeder, Paul, in Howorth, Jolyon and Anand Menon, ‘Still Not Pushing Back : Why the European Union Is Not Balancing the United States’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 53: 727, 2009

Witney, Nick, in Bastian Giegerich & Alexander Nicoll (2012): The Struggle for Value in European Defence, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 54:1, 53-82


Ministry of Defence: French cadets face UK Army training,

Gomis, Benoit, France-UK Defence Cooperation and Mali, Chatham House,

Lord Williams of Baglan, Syria Conflict: No end in sight’, Chatham House,

The Economist:

The Sunday Times:

 UK Government Documents

HM Government: The Strategic Defence & Security Review, Oct 2010

EU Documents

Treaty on the European Union, 1993

Treaty of Lisbon, 2009

Radio Broadcasts

Plaut, Martin on Operation Artemis; BBC Radio World Service, 19 July 2003,

Interviews & Statements

Sir Malcom Rifkind MP, ‘An interview with the author’ 05/07/2012

Dr Liam Fox MP, ‘A Statement to the author’, 25/0/2012


Peter Luff MP, Former Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology at H.M. Ambassador’s Residence to the Franco-British Council 2012 Defence Conference, Paris on Wednesday 21/03/2012

[1] Falklands, Gulf War, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq & Libya

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