French President Francois Hollande did not rule out joint action with the United States against the Bashar El-Assad regime in Syria despite Britain’s decision not to participate in any military action against Damascus. “All the options are on the table. France wants proportionate and firm action against the regime in Damascus,” Mr Hollande said in a wide-ranging interview on Syria with the French daily Le Monde.
If the UN Security Council is prevented from acting on Syria, a coalition would be formed, Mr Hollande said. “As large a coalition as possible which should comprise the Arab League and have the support of the Europeans. France is ready. She will act in close cooperation with her allies,” Mr Hollande said.
“I am not in favour of international intervention that would aim to”liberate” Syria or bring down the dictator. However, I consider that a regime that commits the irreparable against its own population must be stopped,” the French President added.
Asked about the existence of concrete proof against the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, Mr Hollande said the question was no longer whether chemical weapons had been used but by whom. “France has evidence that points to the regime. … The opposition does not hold stocks of chemical weapons which are controlled by Bashar Al Assad. The area that was struck is a key zone for the control of communications routes to Damascus. Finally everything possible was done to wipe out traces (of the chemical attack) with aerial bombardments. And we know who carried those out,” Mr Hollande said.
Military action against the Syrian regime would be legal, Mr Hollande argued, since the 1925 protocol banned their use. Gassing a population constituted a crime against humanity and the UN had sent in inspectors on a verification mission. But, the President indicated, he feared there would be no UN Security Council resolution on Syria because talks had been stalled for two years. Even if the UNSC stalemate continued, “the chemical arms massacre should not go unpunished. Allowing that would increase the risk of making the use of such weapons a banal affair”, Mr Hollande said.
He said France had very early on taken several initiatives such as calling a meeting of the Friends of Syria in 2012 and recognising the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people. “We gave them political support followed by material and humanitarian aid and more recently, military aid in keeping with our European commitments. Today another horrific step has been taken. It is a strong riposte and not political inertia that will impose a political solution,” Mr Hollande explained.
Britain and France lobbied very hard in the European Union to lift the arms embargo against the Syrian rebels and succeeded earlier this year. Since August, EU nations have been free to provide military aid to the Syrian Free Army. French Mistral MANPAD missiles along with American Stinger missiles have found their way into the hands of the rebels. Saudi Arabia has been active in producing weapons for the rebels but sources in Paris suggest that there have been significant direct deliveries of weaponry by the French to the Syrian rebels.
Relations between Paris and Damascus have waxed and waned for decades. Syria was once a French protectorate with the French Mandate in Syria ending as late in 1946. Since then France has considered the Levant States of the Mandate its own particular backyard. Syria’s constant intervention and its backing of the Shia Hezbollah militia has been a constant irritant. France has never really let go of Lebanon, its former protectorate and both Syria and France have been fighting for political influence and control over Beirut.
Paris has often accused Damascus of being behind several terrorist attacks against its interests in Lebanon. The 1980s assassination of French Ambassador to Lebanon Louis Delamarre was placed at the door of Damascus as was the 2005 terrorist attack that killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, a personal friend of Jacques Chriac. France was instrumental in getting Syrian troops ousted from Lebanon and more recently France played a key role in convincing the European Union to place the Hezbollah on its terrorist list. The Hezbollah’s political wing is part of the Lebanese government.
Paris has tended to blow hot and cold with Damascus. President Mitterrand, for instance, became the only head of State to attend the funeral of Hafez El Assad, the father of Bashar El Assad. After a long period of froideur the French and Syrians tried to kiss and make up in 2010 with the much publicised visit to France by Bashar and Asma Al Assad. But relations soon soured again and Paris was quick off the mark to support the Saudi and Qatari-fuelled rebellion against the Assad regime.
One of the risks that Paris and its other western allies run in supporting the Free Syrian Army is its uncertain composition. Military and intelligence experts say that Islamic extremists from across the Middle East and Afghanistan (an estimated 34 different nationalities) have come flocking to Syria with the express aim of waging anti-West Jihad.