As the French government launches a major retaliatory bombing campaign against the ISIS-held Syrian city of Raqqa, observers warn that President François Hollande is taking a page from the widely discredited playbook of former American President George W. Bush.
"France is at war," Hollande declared Monday in an address to Parliament, in which he called for a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the series of attacks Friday in Paris that killed at least 129 people.
The statement came just hours after France—assisted by the United States—launched its largest-yet bombing campaign against Raqqa, which is home to an estimated 200,000 people. The French Defense Ministry said its aircraft dropped 20 bombs on what it described as military targets. However, the Syrian organization Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which documents the brutality of ISIS, reported that France has also bombed a soccer stadium, hospital, museum, and government building.
"The French air strikes are targeting a crowded, large city," said Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, in an interview with Common Dreams. "The fact that ISIS has claimed it as its capital does not change the fact that this is a city of ordinary people. It is hard to imagine that there can be this kind of heavy duty bombing and not have significant casualties and destruction of the city."
Raqqa residents have already endured bombings by the U.S., Russian, Syrian, and French air forces, as well as the brutality of the Islamic State. Khaled al-Homsi, a Palmyra-based activist and nephew of the Syrian archaeologist Khalid al-Asaad who was beheaded by ISIS in August, turned to social media to call for the protection of civilians.
Hollande's government has been bombing territories in Iraq since September 2014, and over the past two months has launched a handful of airstrikes in Syria, including a smaller attack in Raqqa on October. But Sunday night's bombing appears to be France's most extensive yet since it joined the U.S.-led coalition.
Both U.S. and French officials said that American forces backed Sunday's attack by helping them identify alleged targets, in what are euphemistically referred to as "strike packages." Meanwhile, President Barack Obama appears to be encouraging France to take military action, vowing cooperation and calling the Paris massacre an "attack on the civilized world."
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ISIS is claiming responsibility for Friday's attacks in Paris, as well as for another deadly bombing of a Beirut neighborhood that killed at least 43 people. And in Baghdad on Friday, a suicide bomber killed at least 18 people at a funeral, with no immediate claim of responsibility.
In the wake of the Paris attack, Hollande vowed to be "merciless" in going after those responsible. "What happened last night in Paris, and in Saint Denis by the Stade de France, is an act of war," he said on Saturday. "France, because it was attacked cowardly, shamelessly, violently, France will be merciless against the barbarians of Daesh."
However, numerous experts, including Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College, say this kind of rhetoric—and the escalation it threatens—is incredibly dangerous.
"There is a call to do 'something' and there is a need to be 'strong'—otherwise one will lose electoral support," Prashad told Common Dreams. "But this something and this strong are clichés—in that, the same action is taken each time, namely bombing runs against some part of the world."
"We all know that these bombing runs, over the past fifteen years, have not been able to undermine the forces of al-Qaeda and later ISIS, but they have created instability which advantages ISIS, and—because of civilian casualties—given ISIS the kind of propaganda coup it requires to attract new recruits," Prashad continued.
Bennis agreed, warning: "The French seem to be channeling George W. Bush in how to respond to terrorists, taking the position that this is an act of war, and we will have 'merciless' war. But terrorism survives wars."
Many within French civil society are sounding the alarm, including the social movement organization Attac.
"'France is at war,' we are told," the group declared in a statement released Sunday. "But this is not our war: after the American disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan, the current French interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Mali, Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, contribute to destabilizing these regions and trigger the departure of migrants who face Fortress Europe and whose bodies are washed up on our beaches."