France is sending more fighter jets and a warship to strike Islamic State militants in Iraq and will discuss with the United States long-term coalition strategy to tackle the insurgency, including in Syria, officials said on Wednesday.
France was the first country to join the U.S.-led coalition in airstrikes on IS insurgents in Iraq, who have also taken control of large parts of neighboring Syria during the course of the three-year-old civil war there.
However, France has raised concerns that air action in Syria could leave a void that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces may fill and has called for a concerted effort to reinforce and train moderate anti-Assad rebels on the ground.
Ahead of a visit to Washington by Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday to meet his American counterpart, his ministry said three Rafale fighter jets and an anti-aircraft warship would be sent to the Gulf to support Iraqi government forces against Islamic State.
“There will be a strengthening of our capacity to increase the rhythm of missions in the coming days,” a senior French Defense Ministry source said.
France currently has six fighter jets, an Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft and a refueling plane at its base in the United Arab Emirates as part of its “Chammal” Iraq mission.
It has carried out just two airstrikes in Iraq since launching operations in mid-September. France has also delivered 140 tons of military equipment to regional Kurdish peshmerga forces confronting Islamic State in the north of Iraq, as well as provided training for them.
“We [the coalition] are still in the initial phase,” the defense ministry source said. “The objective through these airstrikes ... is to break [Islamic State's] momentum and try to stop them taking the offensive and to start suffering defeats,”
Islamic State has carved out swaths of eastern Syria and western Iraq in a drive to create a cross-border caliphate between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, terrifying communities into submission by slaughtering those who resist.
Iraqi Kurdish troops drove Islamic State fighters from a strategic border crossing with Syria on Tuesday and won the support of members of a major Sunni Muslim tribe, in one of the biggest successes since U.S. forces began bombing the Islamists.
On Wednesday Turkey signaled it may send troops into Syria or Iraq and let allies use Turkish bases to fight Islamic State, as coalition jets bombed insurgents besieging a town on its southern border with Syria.
The French source, who estimated the number of Islamic State fighters at between 25,000-35,000, said Le Drian's visit to Washington would focus on how to get Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian opposition forces to launch an offensive on the ground.
“The next phase is for the local forces to retake territory. That will take several months to develop,” the source said.
“Among allies, and that's partly why we are going to Washington, we have to agree how we are going to reach this objective and what means we are going to put in place to train, and equip those who are fighting Daesh [Islamic State].”
France, which has provided limited weapons to Syrian rebels, has repeatedly said it will strengthen the moderate opposition to fight Assad and the Islamic State, whose main power base is in rebel-controlled eastern and northern Syria.
It estimates that there are about 80,000 fighters opposed to Assad and the Islamic State divided into 1,500 fighting groups.
Of those, some 15,000 fighters belong to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), while the remainder are split between the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Islamic Front.
“The idea is to give the opposition the capacity to resist and take the initiative against the two enemies it is facing,” the source said, adding that given the FSA's weakness and internal rivalries, the coalition needed to coordinate efforts.
He declined to say which groups France backed or how much it had given them but, highlighting the fragmented nature of Syrian groups, he said arming rebels was done on a case-by-case basis.
“The decision to support a group is done on a [group by group] basis after a validation process.”