France seeks to bolster case for Syria action
French release intelligence tying Assad government to chemical attack
France’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrives at the Hotel Matignon offices to attend a meeting with ministers and members of parliament in Paris September yesterday. France aims to build a coalition of countries to back military action against the Syrian government in response to a chemical weapons attack in Damascus, France’s prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said yesterday. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters
The French government sought to bolster the case for military action against Syria last night, releasing a declassified summary of French intelligence that links president Bashar Assad’s government to the apparent use of chemical weapons outside Damascus last month.
The report comes as the French public’s apprehension about intervening in Syria is mounting. President Barack Obama’s announcement that he would seek congressional approval for US military strikes, paired with the British parliament’s vote against taking part, has left France somewhat isolated on the issue internationally. There are rising calls for a parliamentary vote in France, too, though the French president, Francois Hollande, has no constitutional duty to consult the legislature before authorising the use of military force and his government has said it does not intend to do so.
The nine-page intelligence summary, which included proprietary French intelligence in addition to analyses of publicly circulated videos and information shared by allied intelligence services, was published on government websites Monday evening. It asserts that Dr Assad’s forces conducted attacks involving the “massive use of chemical agents” against civilian populations in several suburbs of Damascus on August 21st, and later mounted “significant ground and aerial strikes” with conventional munitions that were aimed at the “destruction of evidence” in those areas. The report gave no indication , however, as to the level of certitude of the conclusions presented.
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“Our services possess information, from a national source, that leave one to think that other actions of this nature could again be conducted,” the report claimed, though it provided no further detail. It said that none of the rebel groups fighting the Syrian government now possessed the “capacity to stock and use” such chemical agents.
Dr Assad has rejected all assertions that his government was responsible for those attacks. In excerpts from an interview with Le Figaro published online yesterday evening, he said that neither France nor the United States had advanced “a single piece of evidence” linking his government to chemical weapons use, and that a strike on his country would have unknowable consequences. The Middle East is “a powder keg, and the flame is approaching it today,” he said in the interview. “Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists.”
There was widespread consensus among French officials that the Assad government was culpable even before the intelligence report was published Monday, however, so it was not clear what impact the document would have. The lower house of the French parliament has scheduled a special session about Syria tomorrow, but no vote is planned. Several government ministers, including prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, met with senior legislators yesterday.
The leader of the opposition in parliament, Christian Jacob, said afterward that an intervention “could only be justified in the framework of the United Nations. ” He expressed concern that France was out of step with its neighbours, including Germany, which has made clear that it would participate militarily only in operations backed by the United Nations. “Why is there no European country, not a single European country as an ally?” he asked.