France Deploys Aircraft Carrier to Boost Campaign Against ISIS

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Published Monday, February 23, 2015

France deployed an aircraft carrier in the Gulf on Monday as part of the US-led military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group in Iraq, a defense ministry official said.

"The integration of the Charles de Gaulle in the operation... (in Iraq) begins this morning," a member of Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian's staff told AFP as his entourage made its way to the carrier.

The first Rafale fighter jet took off in the morning from the Charles de Gaulle as it sailed about 200 kilometers (120 miles) off the coast north of Bahrain in the direction of Iraq.

France launched Operation Chammal in support of the US-led coalition against ISIS in September.

The Charles de Gaulle left its base in Toulon — a city in southern France — on January 13 for a five-month mission that will include several weeks in the Gulf working alongside the USS Carl Vinson as part of the coalition launched after ISIS seized swathes of Syria and Iraq in June last year.

The French carrier is then to travel to India, where it is due to take part in exercises in mid-April.

Carrying 12 Rafale and nine Super Etendard fighters, the carrier will significantly increase French air capabilities in the region.

France has nine Rafales in the United Arab Emirates and six Mirage fighters in Jordan operating in Iraq, along with a maritime patrol and a refueling aircraft.

French warplanes have carried out about 100 reconnaissance missions and the same number of strike raids in Iraq since mid-September in support of Iraqi forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters battling ISIS on the ground, ministry sources said.

France is, along with Australia, one of the main contributors to the 32-member coalition effort aside from the United States, which is carrying out the bulk of strikes.

The coalition has carried out more than 2,000 strikes since August, with France and other Western nations conducting operations over Iraq, and several Arab nations taking part in strikes over Syria.

The campaign aims to support forces in Iraq and Syria, including rebel fighters and Kurdish forces, fighting ISIS on the ground and to hit infrastructure seized by the jihadist group such as oil facilities.

While excluding the deployment of ground combat troops, coalition countries have also sent trainers to work with Iraqi forces.

The Charles de Gaulle strike group also includes an attack submarine, a French anti-aircraft frigate and the HMS Kent, a British anti-submarine frigate. In total some 2,700 sailors are involved in the mission, including 2,000 on the carrier itself.

Six French citizens stopped before Syria travel

Meanwhile, six French citizens had their passports confiscated after allegedly planning to travel to Syria, a security source said on Monday — the first time the measure has been used.

The right to remove passports was introduced as part of a raft of new counter-terrorism laws in November aimed at curbing the number of French citizens leaving to join jihadist groups in the Middle East.

The source said the six French were "imminently" about to travel to Syria.

Their passports and identity cards have been confiscated for six months, after which the order can be renewed.

"There will be more," said Prime Minister Manuel Valls when asked about the case on Monday.

Some 1,400 people living in France are thought to have either joined the jihadist cause in Syria and Iraq or to be planning to do so, Valls said last month.

"Around 40 cases are currently under investigation" in addition to the six, the source said.

According to the latest estimate from the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), foreign fighters are flocking to join ISIS or other jihadist groups at an "unprecedented" rate, with more than 20,000 volunteers from 90 countries, including at least 3,400 from Western states and more than 150 Americans.

However, estimates regarding the number of people affiliated with ISIS in Iraq and Syria vary widely, as reliable data is hard to obtain on the ground.

"The rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is unprecedented. It exceeds the rate of travelers who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years," Nicholas Rasmussen, NCTC director, said, adding that the volunteers come from a range of backgrounds and "do not fit any one stereotype.”

"The battlefields in Iraq and Syria provide foreign fighters with combat experience, weapons and explosives training, and access to terrorist networks that may be planning attacks which target the West," Rasmussen said.

Western governments have voiced increasing alarm over the flow of foreign volunteers heading to the Syrian conflict, particularly in the aftermath of jihadist attacks in Paris that left 17 dead in January.

However, many critics opposed to US-led coalition involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Western and Gulf allies played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

Moreover, neighboring countries, namely Jordan and Turkey, have been accused of turning a blind eye on jihadists’ movement on their borders with Iraq and Syria.

According to a UN report published in November, Turkey has been singled out as a major transit point for ISIS’ oil deliveries, with trucks often returning to Iraq or Syria with refined products.

According to Rasmussen, there was no single route the foreign fighters travel to reach Syria, but most eventually pass through Turkey "because of its geographic proximity to the Syrian border areas."

The recruits have taken advantage of Turkey's visa-free travel arrangements with about 69 governments, including with European Union states, he added.

Turkey claims to have bolstered its effort to stem the flow and deny entry to potential foreign fighters. The country now has a travel ban list that includes some 10,000 people.

But while Turkey and other European countries have supposedly strengthened border controls and taken other steps, "significant work remains" to prevent volunteers from heading to Syria or to stop them from returning, he said.

In the end, the only way to counter extremist threats and ISIS is to "diminish the appeal of terrorism and dissuade individuals from joining them in the first place," Rasmussen said.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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