CREIL, France – In a secretive compound north of Paris, colored blips and blotches on a computer-screen map of Damascus depict an armored vehicle at a highway, tanks, a blown-up building in a suburban field. An unusual glimpse at France's military intelligence headquarters demonstrates how closely the French are watching what's happening in Syria — and how implicated the French government is in ending Syria's civil war.
As French President Francois Hollande keeps up the threat of military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, he isn't just acting as President Barack Obama's poodle, as some critics maintain. France, Syria's onetime colonial ruler and a country eager to maintain its place as a military and diplomatic power, has plenty of reasons to be out front on Syria.
The Middle Eastern country took its current shape as a French mandate after being chiseled out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, as did neighboring Lebanon, and French is spoken by many in both countries. France has particularly close ties to Lebanon and wants to prevent it from being sucked further into Syria's chaos.
The ties to the region also make Syria a particularly attractive place for homegrown French extremists. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said this month that about 110 citizens or residents of France have joined up with jihadist fighters in Syria — about half the total number from European Union countries. French authorities fear they will return home to carry out terrorism.
Also, fear of chemical weapons runs deep in France, which is why France has been hardened its line since the Aug. 21 attack in which the U.S. and some allies believe Assad's regime used sarin gas against Syrian citizens. Many French people have ancestors who faced mustard gas in World War I, as chemical weapons scarred public consciousness for the first time.
INDEPENDENCE AND INTELLIGENCE
Dating back to the presidency of Gen. Charles de Gaulle in the midst of the Cold War, France has long sought to show it takes military decisions independently. A nuclear power, it has also built up one of the world's more robust intelligence machines, in part to show that it doesn't just rely on the United States for information.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian tried to drive home that point to a small group of journalists invited to the headquarters of DRM, France's military intelligence agency, in Creil north of Paris, and taken inside the high-security computer nerve center where images are beamed down from France's Helios and Pleaides satellites. The message was aimed mostly at domestic audiences, who are disillusioned with Hollande and wary of an intervention in Syria.
Screens bore labels of Damascus, the Syrian capital; a nuclear facility at Bushehr, Iran; and Gao, Mali — in the vast desert zone that was controlled by al-Qaida-linked Islamic radicals until French troops ousted them this year.
The images from Damascus appeared to date from late August, and military officers in the image-monitoring center quietly acknowledged that tracking movements of chemical weapons in Syria was difficult by satellite. The DRM also collects intelligence from human sources and through electronic monitoring.
A high-ranking officer with the 13th RDP special forces regiment explained how French troops parachuted secretly into Mali — not showering for days beforehand because dogs can smell soap. Another showed a fake cinder block with a camera inside that could be planted near the suspected hideout of enemy fighters. A bogus stone made of plastic resin about the size of a volleyball hid a GPS beacon inside, to help with targeting. Defense Ministry escorts said the officers' names could not be used for security reasons.
THE MALI MODEL OF MILITARY MUSCLE
France's intervention in Mali has emboldened the government on other overseas operations. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was largely ousted from northern Mali. Only seven French soldiers died in the months-long intervention, while French officials say hundreds of militants were killed. The operation paved the way for elections generally seen as legitimate.
The Mali intervention offered France "an assertion of French military capabilities outside of an operation dominated by the U.S.," said Marc Pierini, a Frenchman who served 35 years as a European Union diplomat, including four years as its ambassador to Syria at the start of Assad's tenure.
SOLE STRENGTH IN EUROPE?
After Britain's parliament blocked any potential British military participation in a Syria strike earlier this month, France stood alone as the European country most willing to wield the military threat alongside the United States against Assad's regime.
From a military standpoint, "none of the other European countries are needed," Pierini said. "The only European country that has Tomahawks is the U.K. — it's paralyzed politically — so the next best thing is the French Scalp," an airplane-fired cruise missile.
Former Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said France also wants to give more teeth to the EU.
"The other Europeans are not in the mindset of 'Europe power,' but one of 'Big Switzerland' — that's to say an isolationist, pacifist evolution," and want to avoid "all foreign dramas and intervene as little as possible," he said in a phone interview.
Not so France.
WANTING TO BE HEARD
A permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, France is often seen as a fading, if not already faded, power. Hollande wants to counter that, and is using France's vast diplomatic network to do so.
It's also propelled by a French Revolution-era belief in universal values of human rights, which has played a role in French military interventions from Bosnia to Afghanistan. An exception was Iraq a decade ago, when then-President Jacques Chirac opposed the U.S.-led operation in Iraq, saying it wasn't justified.
"C'est la France, Monsieur!" said Pierini, referring to France's impulse to intervene. "It's in part the issue of principle."
Added Vedrine, the former foreign minister: "The question is not 'do we side up with the United States?' It is 'can we let this massacre happen without reacting?'"