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France: Syria action would ‘re-balance’ situation

(AP)
Filed on September 4, 2013

France’s government offers a preview Wednesday of what the Obama administration faces next week, as lawmakers debate the wisdom and necessity of a military response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed hundreds.

Shoring up support for a military response, French officials said a punitive military response would help shift the balance in a 2 ½-year-old civil war that was tipping in favour of Bashar Al Assad.

“If you want a political solution you have to move the situation. If there’s no sanction, Bashar Al Assad will say ‘that’s fine, I’ll continue what I’m doing,’” France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told France Info radio Wednesday morning, hours ahead of the debate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s most vocal supporters, warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria, although he told The Associated Press that Russia had frozen new shipments to Syria of an air defence missile system.

There’s a major difference between the French debate and the one coming up on Capitol Hill: President Francois Hollande has an easy majority in the French parliament, and he neither needs nor — unlike President Barack Obama — wants their vote of approval. But with the prospect of military action against Assad facing dwindling support internationally, the government has been building its case.

The U.S. and France accuse the Syrian 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 — though U.S. officials say any action will be limited in scope, not aimed at helping to remove Assad.

Putin said Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people, but he questioned the proofs released by Britain, the United States and France as part of their efforts to build international support.

Fabius, the French foreign minister, said Syria would certainly come up at this week’s G-20 meeting in Russia.

“We will discuss with the Russians, because they are an important player in the region. Up until now they’ve been blocking things. If there’s been an evolution that would be very desirable,” Fabius said.

On Tuesday, the White House won backing for military action from two powerful Republicans — House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor.

In Paris, Hollande said that 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.

Fabius on Wednesday acknowledged the U.S. vote was crucial.

“If the United States backed off — which I don’t plan on, but anything can happen — this type of action wouldn’t be possible and so we would have to consider the Syrian question in another way,” he said.

French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud Belkacem said punitive action in Syria would “re-balance” the situation on the ground.

The Syrian conflict, which began as a popular uprising against Assad in March 2011, later degenerated into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.

The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that the number of Syrians who have fled the country has surpassed the 2 million mark.

Along with more than four million people displaced inside Syria, this means more than six million Syrians have been uprooted, out of an estimated population of 23 million.

Antonio Guterres, the head of the Office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Syria is hemorrhaging an average of almost 5,000 citizens a day across its borders, many of them with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Nearly 1.8 million refugees have fled in the past 12 months alone, he said.

The agency’s special envoy, actress Angelina Jolie, said “some neighbouring countries could be brought to the point of collapse” if the situation keeps deteriorating at its current pace. Most Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.





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