France 'ready to punish' Syria over gas attack
French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday that his country is prepared to take action against those responsible for gassing people in Syria.
"France is ready to punish those who took the heinous decision to gas innocents" in Syria last week, Hollande said at a conference with France's ambassadors. He did not elaborate.
"I have decided to increase our military support to the National Syrian Coalition," the main Syrian opposition group in exile, he also said.
France, one of Europe's biggest military powers, has not specified what preparation it is taking for any possible international action against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
But on Monday Hollande said time is running out for the Syrian regime and airstrikes are a possibility. "Everything will come into play this week," he told Le Parisien newspaper. "There are several options on the table, ranging from strengthening international sanctions to airstrikes to arming the rebels.
Hollande spoke with President Barack Obama on Sunday and told him France, like Britain, would support him in a targeted military intervention, according to the paper.
In a veiled allusion to difficulties in getting any strong action through the Security Council, Hollande said Tuesday that "international law must evolve with the times. It cannot be a pretext to allow mass massacres to be perpetrated." He then went on to invoke France's recognition of "the responsibility to protect civilian populations" that the U.N. General Assembly approved in 2005.
Ultimately, said one French diplomat, the goal of any military action would be to both "dissuade and punish," change the balance of power on the ground in Syria, and even give Assad more reason to eventually come to the negotiating table. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter and because the president has not publicly announced specific plans.
Hollande said the "most appropriate response" should be made to the Syrian regime once "the main part" of the U.N. mission currently on the ground in Syria to collect evidence from last week's attack is finished. A senior diplomat said it could take a "few days" but that a military strike could still happen before the opening of the Group of 20 summit in Russia on Sept. 5.
Analyst Francois Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Research think tank, said Hollande's speech ultimately meant a military strike is "going to happen, provided that the Americans confirm they are in it." He said the message from Western powers to Assad in such an attack would be "this is punishment, and should convince him not to do it again" when it comes to use of chemical weapons.
Hollande announced a meeting of his top defense and security officials on Wednesday and he said he will inform the French Parliament quickly. The French president will meet with Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, on Thursday in Paris.
Associated Press reporters Jamey Keaten and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.