France's government offered a preview of what the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama faces next week, as lawmakers debate wisdom and necessity of a military response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed hundreds.
French officials shoring up support for a punitive military response to an alleged chemical attack last month in Syria said it would help shift the balance in a 2½-year-old civil war that was tipping in favour of President Bashar al-Assad.
"If you want a political solution, you have to move the situation. If there's no sanction, Bashar Assad will say, `That's fine, I'll continue what I'm doing,"' French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Info radio Wednesday morning, hours ahead of a debate by lawmakers on the wisdom and necessity of a military response to the alleged chemical attack Aug. 21.
- G20 leaders to talk growth, with Syria in the background
As the Obama administration worked to build its own support ahead of the Congress vote, with debate beginning Sept. 9, U.S. and Israel conducted a joint missile test Tuesday in the eastern Mediterranean in an apparent signal of military readiness. A missile was fired from the sea toward the Israeli coast to test the tracking by the country's missile defence system.
French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said punitive action in Syria would "rebalance" the situation on the ground.
Putin warns against action
But Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of Assad's most vocal supporters, warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria, although he told The Associated Press that Russia had frozen new shipments to Syria of an air defence missile system.
There's a major difference between the French debate and the one planned in Washington on Capitol Hill: President Francois Hollande has an easy majority in the French parliament, and he neither needs nor — unlike Obama — wants a vote of approval. But with the prospect of military action against Assad facing dwindling support internationally, the French government has been building its case.
U.S. officials say any action will be limited in scope, not aimed at helping to remove Assad.
Putin said Russia "doesn't exclude" supporting a UN resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people, but he questioned alleged evidence released by Britain, the United States and France as part of their efforts to build international support.
Any proof needs to go before the Security Council, Putin told The Associated Press. "And it ought to be convincing. It shouldn't be based on some rumours and information obtained by special services through some kind of eavesdropping, some conversations and things like that."
Fabius said Syria would certainly come up at this week's G20 meeting in Russia.
"We will discuss with the Russians, because they are an important player in the region. Up until now they've been blocking things. If there's been an evolution that would be very desirable."
On Tuesday, the White House won backing for military action from two powerful Republicans — House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Eric Cantor, House majority leader.
In Syria, Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the country's ruling Baath party, slammed U.S. senators and members of Congress for their support.
An editorial in the newspaper's Wednesday edition branded the American lawmakers who backed military action in Syria as "advocates of war and terrorism."
"When the Obama administration seeks a broader mandate from the Congress, which it basically is in no need of, this means that it prepares itself for what is bigger and more dangerous."
In Paris, Hollande said the U.S. vote "will have consequences on the coalition that we will have to create." He did not specify whether that meant a military coalition.
Fabius on Wednesday acknowledged the U.S. vote was crucial.
"If the United States backed off — which I don't plan on, but anything can happen — this type of action wouldn't be possible and so we would have to consider the Syrian question in another way," he said.
More than 100,000 dead, 2 million fled Syria
Since the outbreak of the Syria conflict in March 2011, the two sides have fought to a stalemate, though the Assad regime has retaken the offensive in recent months. Rebel fighters control large rural stretches in northern and eastern Syria, while Assad is holding on to most of the main urban areas.
The Syrian conflict, which began as a popular uprising against Assad in March 2011, later degenerated into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that the number of Syrians who have fled the country has surpassed the two million mark.
Along with more than four million people displaced inside Syria, this means more than six million Syrians have been uprooted, out of an estimated population of 23 million.
Antonio Guterres, head of the Office for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Syria is losing an average of almost 5,000 citizens a day who are heading across its borders, many of them with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Nearly 1.8 million refugees have fled in the past 12 months alone, he said.
The agency's special envoy, actor Angelina Jolie, said "some neighbouring countries could be brought to the point of collapse" if the situation keeps deteriorating at its current pace.
Most Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.