French President Francois Hollande, who appears determined to launch imminent strikes on Syria, is hamstrung by the United States -- which has delayed taking action -- and growing domestic opposition to military intervention.
Hollande, who unilaterally intervened in Mali to prevent Islamists from proceeding south towards the country’s capital, has repeatedly voiced his determination to “punish” President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for alleged chemical weapons attacks on August 21.
France has been catapulted to the status of Washington’s main ally in the Syria crisis after the British parliament in a shock move rejected plans for military action mooted by Washington.
But Paris risks being seen as the “trailer” to the American vehicle in case of an intervention, former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon warned over the weekend.
He said France should act “responsibly” and not follow anyone into an attack “even if they are our friends and allies, the Americans.”
“The region is a powder-keg,” Fillon warned.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad on Sunday branded the French government as “irresponsible” and accused Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius of duping “the French people to justify the failed policies against Syria.”
But a French government source said the government would soon declassify and make public secret documents which showed that Damascus had stockpiled sarin, mustard gas and other chemical agents.
The Journal du Dimanche newspaper said Damascus’s arsenal exceeded 1,000 tons of chemical agents, some of which had been stored for nearly three decades.
U.S. President Barack Obama in a surprise move put off threatened missile strikes on Damascus that had appeared imminent, saying he would seek approval from Congress first.
This pushes back any military action until at least September 9, when U.S. lawmakers return from their summer break.
The United States and other Western and Arab countries blame the alleged gas attacks in the Damascus suburbs on the Assad regime, which itself strenuously denies any responsibility and points an accusing finger at the opposition forces.
Washington says that based on its intelligence, more than 1,400 people were killed in the gruesome incident.
“If the United States decides not to intervene, it’s clear that France cannot go it alone because there has to be a coalition to ensure legitimacy,” said Elisabeth Guigou, the head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a member of Hollande’s Socialist party.
But a French source close to the case voiced concern over putting off action for too long.
“The more the disciplinary action is delayed after August 21 (the date of the alleged attack), the more it risks being less effective on a political and military level,” the source said.
“We are ready, the targets have been identified, but it is clear that we have to follow the tempo of the Americans,” a military source said.
Hollande meanwhile faces growing calls at home for a consensus. He has called an emergency parliament session on Wednesday on the Syrian crisis.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will Monday receive lawmakers to brief them on the issue.
Jean-Francois Cope, the president of the main right-wing party, the UMP, has also warned of the dangers of military action, as an opinion poll showed that 64 percent of French people were opposed to an intervention.
Insisting that France retained its ability to make its own military decision, Cope said on Saturday that political leaders should wait for the conclusions of U.N. weapons inspectors. “The Iraq syndrome is present in all our minds,” he said.
The invasion of Iraq by a U.S-led coalition in 2003 was opposed by France as weapons of mass destruction were never found.
Hollande however does need parliamentary approval to launch strikes. But under the French constitution, he has to inform the legislature within three days of any action taken.
The parliament can then initiate a debate but no vote is necessary. A vote in the legislature is only required if the military action lasts for more than four months.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls said the constitution would not be tampered with to fit the situation and underscored Sunday that “France cannot act alone” in Syria.
“There has to be a coalition,” Valls said. “If the U.N. Security Council is prevented from acting” due to the veto-power of Syria’s traditional ally Russia and China, “a coalition must be formed and should be as large as possible.”
France keen on Syria action despite U.S. delay