The Mali question is totally different : First, we have a colonial history in the Sahel region, and France has to honour some treaties of protection (written or "moral") with these countries. France always had, and still has, specific interests in the region. With all the respect i have for the local populations and their rights, the Mali alone does not represent huge amounts of resources. some gold mines, some petrol concentrated in the north where AQMI is quite active, some bauxite and iron minerals... almost no uranium. some french firms settled in Mali, but you have to take a bigger view of the picture. Nigeria, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Côte d'Ivoire... all the near countries have way bigger resource interests and many firms, french, europeans or other ones are implanted there, and the main mission of the french forces is to stabilize the whole region against the terrorists, against the ethnics civil wars...and to protect these interests. Not to say that all this part of the african continent is subject to a hard struggle to know who will obtain the tremendous contracts tied to the infrastructures constructions and properties, and overall the telecommunications contracts : Vivendi and Bolloré are on the breach to obtain these ones, with the help of the government, but some other "competitors" don't see this the same way, and don't use the same rules for sure : the Qatar for example and their "allies". those contracts represent a great geostrategic asset and a valuable source of intelligence for any country obtaining them...France, Germany and UK as allies have good chances, and they have to secure this bet.
France has to maintain some ground forces, operational bases and immediate projection capacities in this "pré-carré", this region. when saying that, i mainly think about the populations safety of course, their protection, their own interests and natural rights about the resources of their countries, but we all know that the truth is sadly way more complex than that..
The syrian conflict is another thing. Here, no natural and uncontested "circle of influence". noone wants to put the foot on the ground because the whole region is historically a wasp nest and the whole action procedure has to be approved by the ONU. you have to understand that primarily, at the ONU security Council, Hollande is (was??) one of the last politics blocking the idea of keeping Assad in charge. So the french forces are not welcome, and couldn't intervene on the syrian ground without it being considered as an unauthorized military action on a foreign soil. Putin would have used his right of veto as Russia is a permanent member of the council. With the recent events and the fact that the french country was hurt directly, we are going in an "approved joint operation" with the US, okay, but also with the russians, and these last ones don't want to hear about the Assad's departure. that's another consequence of the terrorist attacks in France. today, the international position of France about Syria is about to evolve, and Hollande will have to deal with Assad for now. it's sad to say that, but of two evils, you sometimes have to choose the least. Even if some french lobbyists, Under the cover of diplomatic missions with deputies, approached Assad with some economic and strategic purposes, the real objective is beyond the Assad concern today : hitting ISIS hard and quick is the priority. This is an important development on the international scene, and another win for Putin. Not to say finally, that in pre-electing periods, any (inevitable) casualties in our army forces linked to a ground engagement in syria would be unacceptable for the opinion. i won't even talk about budget or operational capacities...nor about the old, but logically still active, alliance signed by François Ier...
The money trail could equally be a good lead to strike ISIS. but here, the problem is that pursuing those who buy the petrol, the antiquities and make some deals with ISIS would lead to incriminate ally countries or corporations. too risky and degrading... So, what's left? distant strikes on the objectives. you can justify it as a politic and response measure, the opinion can accept that. As you said, i also hope that the innocents will remain far from the danger.
Just my humble opinion. you may say cynical. i'd reply realistic.
That's the saddest part of the story. I was getting used to think, after nearly three decades of its existence, that the word "Strategy" was the main cornerstone of the RTS genre and golden age.