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France launches first airstrikes against Isis in Syria

ISIS

A French Rafale fighter at a base in the Gulf Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

France has carried out its first airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria after nearly three weeks of surveillance flights.

The French president, François Hollande, confirmed that the operation to “fight the terrorist threat” was coordinated with partners in the region, an Elysee statement said.

The strikes were aimed at targets identified during surveillance missions conducted by French jets since 8 September. While no specifics were provided about the location or timing of the airstrikes, French military officials have said they would target IS training and logistical sites, according to media reports.

The French government has insisted that while it is part of the US-led coalition,France is deciding who and what to hit independently.

The air-strikes mark a turn-around in the French approach to Syria’s crisis. The president’s office said: “We will strike any time our national security is at stake.”

Earlier this month the Socialist Hollande announced that France would carry out surveillance with a view to eventual airstrikes against Islamic State, citing self-defence as his rationale. The decision came as the refugee crisis and the photo of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi sparked shock across the world. But France’s decision was in fact influenced more by last month’s foiled attack by a suspected jihadi gunman who opened fire on a packed Amsterdam-Paris train.

As France faces what the government says is a high terrorist threat on home soil, and is still coming to term with January’s terrorist attacks by gunmen who left 17 dead after targeting the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Paris kosher supermarket, the president has sought to send an important message to his own national electorate that France would be ready to strike back if there was any terrorist attempt on France.

The surveillance operation in Syria over the past weeks had been shaped as Paris targeting those who could be planning terrorist attacks on France.

The move to airstrikes shows how France’s strategy on Syria has evolved. Until now, France had been firing airstrikes on IS extremists only in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition since last year, and had resisted airstrikes in Syria because it didn’t want to be seen to be strengthening President Bashar al-Assad.

Paris, the former colonial power in Syria, has been one of the most outspoken western powers on Damascus from the start of the crisis. Two years ago, France was pushing for military action against Assad, resolving to “punish” Damascus over its use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people, but that move faltered without an international coalition of support.

This month, the French president ruled out sending ground troops to Syria and said nothing should be done that could strengthen Assad, or help him remain in power. “In the end, Assad must go,” Hollande said.

In his statement on Sunday, Hollande said: “Civilian populations must be protected from all forms of violence, that of IS and other terrorist groups but also the murderous bombardments of Bashar Assad.”

Polls show that a majority of the French public favours military action in Syria.

At the French foreign ministry, the emphasis is on politics and diplomacy as the only possible solution to the crisis.

The announcement of operations in Syria came the day before Hollande joins world leaders for the start of the UN general assembly in New York, where the four-year Syrian war is expected to be at the centre of debate.

Iran and Russia have given strong backing to Assad, regarded by the US and European countries including France as the instigator of a civil war that has left 250,000 dead and large parts of his country in the hands of Isis.

Russia, meanwhile, has rankled the west by strengthening its military presence in Syria in recent weeks.

Ahead of the UN gathering, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, met his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Saturday to discuss Syria.

Washington refuses to accept a peace process that would leave Assad in power and so has backed and armed small “moderate” rebel groups. But that strategy appeared in tatters after the Pentagon admitted the latest US-trained fighters to cross into Syria had given a quarter of their equipment to al-Qaida.-the guardian-

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