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France Helps U.S. Fight ISIS In Iraq, But Not Syria


A new video has been released by the self-proclaimed Islamic state. It shows yet another beheading. This time, the victim is British aid worker Alan Henning. In a statement, Prime Minister David Cameron said, the brutal murder of Alan Henning shows just how barbaric and repulsive these terrorists are. And at the end of the video, another hostage is shown and identified as American. The previous video has prompted calls in the West for military action against the extremists, who have taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria. The U.S. says, dozens of countries are part of a coalition against the militants. But few are actually taking part in U.S.-led airstrikes, either in Iraq or Syria. NPR's Michele Kelemen sat down with the defense minister of one coalition partner - France - to find out why that country has decided to join, but only in Iraq.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Back in 2003, France opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. But when the Obama administration was looking for partners to go after ISIS militants in Iraq, France was quick to join. The country's defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, says, the circumstances were entirely different.

LE DRIAN: (Through translator) First, because the Iraqi authorities have asked us to come. Secondly, because the Iraqi territory threatened of disintegration by jihadi terrorists.

KELEMEN: Threatened by a group that has drawn in thousands of foreign fighters, including from France.

DRIAN: (Through translator) So we are not at all in the same context, and we think our own security is at stake.

KELEMEN: France has fought extremist groups in North Africa in recent years. And Le Drian tells NPR, he talked about that with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who also praised France yesterday for its contributions in Iraq.


CHUCK HAGEL: American and French forces will continue to work side-by-side to support Iraqi forces on the ground, as French aircraft patrol the skies over Iraq and provide valuable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance on ISIL targets.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has carried out the bulk of the airstrikes and is in the lead of the coalition. Still, Hagel says, there is burden sharing. And he brushed off a French report that the U.S. vetoed some targets the French wanted to bomb.


HAGEL: We work together. That means we share intelligence. We share all of our assets on focus of those assets to make sure those strikes are effective. That includes the best intelligence we can share on targets.

KELEMEN: Australia just announced that its aircraft will join U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq, and Australian special forces will be deployed to help advise and assist Iraqi forces on the ground. Denmark is also sending fighter jets, and British warplanes have carried out some of the strikes.

In Syria, it's a different story. There, the U.S. is carrying out airstrikes with five Arab partners. In our interview, the French defense minister, Le Drian, suggested that the U.S. didn't ask his country to participate in Syria.

DRIAN: (Through translator) France said very clearly what they wanted to do in Iraq, and we're in full transparency with the United States on that one.

KELEMEN: France was the one country that was ready to act in Syria last year to punish Bashar al-Assad's regime after a chemical weapons attack. President Obama, though, eventually decided against it. Le Drian says, France was also an early backer of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, though he says, the rebels who are fighting both the Assad regime and ISIS need much more help. He says, he spoke to Defense Secretary Hagel about this.

DRIAN: (Through translator) My wish is that the coalition that we have built now to fight against ISIS will be the same coalition that would support the Syrian opposition.

KELEMEN: France, he says, is arming and training Syrian rebels. But he says, they're not ready to fill the vacuum in Syria, and no one wants to do anything that would embolden either the Syrian regime or ISIS militants, who control a large part of Syria.

DRIAN: (Through translator) We don't want to choose between a bloody dictator who has caused the death of over 200,000 people on one hand and on the other hand, a group of terrorists who is busy assassinating people shamelessly and leaving bloody traces all over the place.

KELEMEN: The only possible strategy, the French defense minister says, is to support the moderate opposition. But he says, so far the coalition fighting ISIS is not doing enough to pave the way for a post-Assad Syria. Michelle Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.