French leader to await US Congress vote on Syria

PARIS: French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday that he’s waiting for a decision from the US Congress on possible military action in Syria and insists France won’t strike against Bashar Assad’s regime alone.

The French leader and President Barack Obama have been the two most outspoken world leaders on the need to respond to a suspected chemical weapons attack Aug. 21 near Damascus that killed hundreds of people.

The French and US government have both laid out cases insisting Assad’s regime was behind it, a claim Syria has denied.

At a news conference with German President Joachim Gauck, Hollande said the US vote, sought by Obama, and expected after Congress returns to session next week, about authorizing military action in Syria ”will have consequences on the coalition that we will have to create.”

He did not specify whether that meant a military coalition.

”A large coalition must therefore be created on the international scale, with the United States, which will soon take its decision, (and) with Europe … and Arab countries,” Hollande said.

If the Congress votes no, he said, France ”will take up its responsibilities by supporting the democratic opposition (in Syria) in such a way that a response is provided.”

The remarks came a day after France’s government released an extract of intelligence gathered by two leading French intelligence agencies alleging that Assad’s regime was behind the attack and at least two other, smaller-scale ones earlier this year.

Hollande added Tuesday that France confirmed the poison gas sarin was used in the attack last month.

The French parliament will debate the Syria issue Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled. France’s constitution doesn’t require such a vote on French military intervention until its lasts longer than four months, though some French lawmakers have urged Hollande to call one anyway.

He said Tuesday, ”We’re not there yet.”

The US and France have argued that the alleged chemical weapons attack violates international conventions. Russia, which with Iran has been a staunch backer of Assad through the conflict, brushed aside Western evidence of an alleged Syrian regime role.

Hollande said he would speak to the French people ”once I have all the elements that can form the foundation of my decision, and I will carry out my responsibility in only one interest: That of France.”

The two-year civil war has left 100,000 dead in Syria.

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Syria asks UN to ‘prevent any aggression’

DAMASCUS: Syria has asked the United Nations to try to “prevent any aggression” against it, state news agency SANA said Monday, as the United States weighs military action against Damascus.

“The Syrian government calls on the UN secretary general to assume his responsibilities … and to make efforts to prevent any aggression against Syria,” the agency said, quoting a letter from Syria’s UN representative Bashar al-Jaafari.

The letter also urged the United Nations to help seek a “peaceful political solution to the crisis” in Syria, where more than 110,000 people have been killed in violence since an uprising against the regime began in March 2011.

US President Barack Obama is seeking approval from Congress for military action against Syria in response to an alleged chemical attack on Damascus suburbs on August 21 that killed hundreds.

Much of the international community, including the United States, Britain and France, has accused the Syrian regime of carrying out the attack, a charge that the government in Damascus denies.

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday said Syria used sarin gas and France on Monday was set to provide what it says is clear evidence the regime was behind the alleged chemical attack.

“The Syrian government repeats once again that it has never used chemical weapons,” Jaafari wrote in the letter.

“The world was expecting the United States to play its role as a sponsor of peace… by preparing seriously for the Geneva conference on Syria, and not as a country that uses military force against those who oppose its policies,” he added.

Earlier in the year, the United States and Russia said they would work to organise a peace conference in Geneva to seek a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

But the efforts have gradually fallen apart, with leaders announcing successive delays to the mooted meeting.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that military action against Damascus would put off chances for a peace conference “a long time, if not forever.”

France will not attack Syria alone, PM to meet parliament leaders

PARIS: France will not launch an assault on Syria alone and will wait for US Congress to decide on whether to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s government for a gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians, Interior Minister Manuel Valls said.

Valls made the comments on Sunday to Europe 1 radio as pressure mounted in France for President Francois Hollande to put the question of intervention to a parliamentary vote.

Also on Sunday, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he would meet with the heads of the two houses of parliament and the opposition on Monday to discuss Syria before a scheduled parliamentary debate on Syria on Wednesday.

“France can not go it alone,” Valls said. “We need a coalition.”

Valls said the announcement by US Prsident Barack Obama on Saturday that he would seek authorisation from lawmakers before any strike created “a new situation” which meant France would have to wait “for the end of this new phase”.

On Friday, Hollande said a British parliamentary vote against military action in Syria would not affect France’s will to punish Assad’s government, which it blamed for the gas attack.

A BVA poll on Saturday showed most French people do not approve of military action against Syria and most do not trust Hollande to conduct such an operation.

In an unexpectedly assertive move, Hollande, whose popularity has been hurt by economic gloom, sent troops this year to help Mali’s government fend off Islamist rebels, an intervention backed by two-thirds of the public.

Obama seeking congressional OK for Syria action

WASHINGTON: Delaying what had loomed as an imminent strike, President Barack Obama abruptly announced Saturday he will seek congressional approval before launching any military action meant to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack that killed hundreds.

With Navy ships on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their cruise missiles, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action and that he believes he has “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorisation.”

At the same time, he said, “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective.”

Congress is scheduled to return from a summer vacation on September 9.

The president didn’t say so, but his strategy carries enormous risks to his and the nation’s credibility, which the administration has argued forcefully is on the line in Syria.

Obama long ago said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that Syrian President Bashar Assad would not be allowed to cross with impunity.

Only this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat when the House of Commons refused to support his call for military action against Syria.

Either way, the developments marked a stunning turn in an episode in which Obama has struggled to gain international support for a strike, while dozens of lawmakers at home urged him to seek their backing.

Halfway around the world, Syrians awoke Saturday to state television broadcasts of tanks, planes and other weapons of war, and troops training, all to a soundtrack of martial music. Assad’s government blames rebels in the August 21 attack, and has threatened retaliation if it is attacked.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he was appealing to a Nobel Peace laureate rather than to a president, urged Obama to reconsider. A group that monitors casualties in the long Syrian civil war challenged the United States to substantiate its claim that 1,429 died in a chemical weapons attack, including more than 400 children.

By accident or design, the new timetable gives time for UN inspectors to receive lab results from the samples they took during four days in Damascus, and to compile a final report. After leaving Syria overnight, the inspection team arrived in Rotterdam a few hours before Obama spoke.

The group’s leader was expected to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday.

Republicans expressed satisfaction at Obama’s decision, and challenged him to make his case to the public and lawmakers alike that American power should be used to punish Assad. “We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other House Republican leaders said in a joint statement.

“In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.” It appeared that effort at persuasion was already well underway.

The administration arranged a series of weekend briefings for lawmakers, both classified and unclassified, and Obama challenged lawmakers to consider “what message will we send to a dictator” if he is allowed to kill hundreds of children with chemical weapons without suffering any retaliation.

While lawmakers are scheduled to return to work September 9, officials said it was possible the Senate might come back to session before then. Obama said Friday he was considering “limited and narrow” steps to punish Assad, adding that US national security interests were at stake.

He pledged no US combat troops on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.

With Obama struggling to gain international backing for a strike, Putin urged him to reconsider his plans. “We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world,” said Putin, a strong Assad ally.

“Did this resolve even one problem?” Even the administration’s casualty estimate was grist for controversy. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organisation that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organisation, said he was not contacted by US officials about his efforts to collect information about the death toll in the August 21 attacks.

“America works only with one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda,” he said, and urged the Obama administration to release the information its estimate is based on.