France’s Hollande Vows to “Punish” Perpetrators of Syrian Gas Attack

The French leader invokes the world’s “responsibility to protect” civilians in Syria’s civil war.

French president François Hollande delivers a public address from the Elysée Palace in Paris, January 11, 2012
French president François Hollande delivers a public address from the Elysée Palace in Paris, January 11, 2012 (Elysée)

President François Hollande has said France is ready to punish those responsible for a suspected chemical attack in Syria last week, invoking the world’s “responsibility to protect” civilians in the country where tens of thousands have died since a civil war broke out more than two years ago.

Like American and British leaders, Hollande said he was certain a nerve agent had been deployed by forces loyal to Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.

Opposition activists have accused the regime of gassing hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus, prompting France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, to call on the world to respond with “force.”

Hollande also reminded an annual convention of French diplomats in Paris that his country had been the first to recognize Syria’s opposition as the legitimate representatives of its people and he vowed to expand French support for the rebels who are battling Assad’s government.

Western forces in the area

French business magazine Challenges reports that the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is being sent to the Eastern Mediterranean from its current berth in Toulon in the south of France. Officials have denied this report.

The flagship of the French navy carries up to forty warplanes, including advanced Rafale fighter jets, which could be used if Western powers decide to attack Syria.

The United States have four warships in the area which are capable of firing cruise missiles. They also have F-16s in neighboring Jordan.

The nearest American aircraft carriers, the USS Harry S. Truman and Nimitz, are both deployed in the Arabian Sea.

Western jets could also operate from NATO bases in Greece and Turkey. The United Kingdom has two military installations on Cyprus, which is less than one hundred kilometers away from Syria.

Public support

Unlike American and British voters, who are wary of intervention, French public opinion backs Hollande’s assertive policy. An Ifop poll in June showed 58 percent of Frenchmen supporting a military intervention in Syria, up from 51 percent in February. Support for French involvement has surged from 38 to 50 percent.

French newspapers are also supportive. Both Libération and Le Monde, which tend to support Hollande’s Socialist Party, have lamented the absence of a Western reaction to last week’s alleged gas attack.

The latter endorsed military intervention on Monday, arguing that Western credibility is at stake if Assad’s use of chemical weapons goes unpunished.

“Not responding strongly to the Syrian chemical event would open the way for savagery in our era,” the paper argues. “No one can then predict what fanatics and tyrants might turn to weapons of mass destruction tomorrow, believing they will only open themselves up to denunciations.”

Investigation

Neither foreign journalists nor independent observers have yet been able to determine if a nerve agent really was used. United Nations inspectors are in the country to investigate the allegations.

The regime claims that the rebels used the gas themselves, possibly to compel Western countries to intervene in what is now a bloody sectarian war as well as a proxy fight between the Sunni powers in the Middle East and Assad’s ally Iran.

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