• French PM: Assad could strike again if no one acts
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     | September 05,2013
     
    AP PHOTO

    France’s Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault addressed parliament during a debate Wednesday to rally support for a military strike again Syria.

    PARIS — France’s prime minister made a passionate appeal Wednesday for intervention in Syria, placing the blame for a chemical attack on Syrian President Bashar Assad and warning that inaction could let him carry out more atrocities.

    Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault addressed the French National Assembly at the beginning of a debate on the wisdom of a French military response. Wednesday’s debate will end without a vote — since President Francois Hollande can order a military operation without one — but it was part of his government’s delicate dance to rev up support at home for an unpopular intervention.

    The French debate also offered a preview of the challenges the Obama administration faces when the U.S. Congress debates Syria next week.

    The U.S. and France accuse Assad’s government of using chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds of people. Obama and Hollande are pushing for a military response to punish Assad for his alleged use of poison gas against civilians — although U.S. officials say any action will be limited in scope and not aimed at helping to remove Assad.

    The French government is in a particularly difficult situation, with many opposition party members claiming that the Socialist Hollande is merely acting as a lapdog for the U.S., the only other major power considering a Syrian military intervention. In a possible sign of budding support for an intervention, officials from countries neighboring Syria who met Wednesday in Geneva did not express explicit opposition to any military action.

    Ayrault was careful to say that his certainty about the facts of the attack comes from French sources. But he mentioned for the first time a death toll of nearly 1,500 — which is around what the Americans have cited.

    “The Syrian regime carries the entire responsibility” for the attack, said Ayrault. “Not to react would be to send a terrible message to Bashar Assad and to the Syrian people: Chemical weapons can used tomorrow again, against Damascus, against Aleppo, maybe even in a bigger way.”

    Ayrault said a punitive military response would help shift the balance in a 2 ½-year-old civil war — which was tipping in favor of Assad — and was the only way to convince the Syrian leader that he must go to the negotiating table.

    Many in the opposition have called for a vote in the French parliament, even though Hollande’s administration could win one since his party holds a comfortable majority.

    Conservative French lawmakers have also said an attack without a U.N. resolution is risky, evoking the Iraq war when France pointedly refused to join the U.S.-led invasion without Security Council support. During Wednesday’s debate, Christian Jacob, president of the right-leaning UMP party, criticized Hollande for ceding France’s independence to the Americans.

    He said France’s guiding principle should be: “always allied with the United States, never falling into line.”

    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.

    Syria’s parliament speaker sent a letter to his French counterpart ahead of Wednesday’s debate, urging lawmakers not to make any “hasty” decisions. Syrian lawmakers sent a similar letter to Britain ahead of a parliamentary vote there that rejected military action against Syria.

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