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 answers question from reporters after a European Council meeting in Brussels, June 28
French president François Hollande answers question from reporters after a European Council meeting in Brussels, June 28 (Elysée)

President François Hollande said on Tuesday that France was ready to punish those responsible for a suspected chemical weapons 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 fighting for Syria’s president Bashar Assad. Opposition activists accused the regime last week 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 representative of its people and vowed to expand French weapons support for the rebels who are battling Assad’s government.

French business magazine Challenges reported earlier in the day that the country’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier was being sent to the Eastern Mediterranean from its current berth in Toulon in the south of France. Officials denied the report.

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

The United States have four warships in the area which are capable of firing cruise missiles and F-16s stationed 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 air bases in Greece and Turkey while the United Kingdom has two military installations on Cyprus. The island lies less than one hundred kilometers west of Syria’s coast.

Whereas American and British voters are skeptical of intervention, French public opinion appears to favor 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 surged from 38 to 50 percent.

French newspapers are also supportive. Both Libération and Le Monde, which tend to support Hollande’s Socialist Party, lamented the lack of a Western reaction to last week’s alleged gas attack. The latter endorsed military intervention on Monday, arguing that Western credibility would be at stake if Assad’s use of chemical weapons went unpunished. “Not responding strongly to the Syrian chemical event would open the way for savagery in our era,” the paper argued. “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.”

Neither foreign journalists nor independent observers have yet been able to determine whether a nerve agent was indeed 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 other 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.

In 2011, Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy become an outspoken proponent of Western military intervention in Libya after its strongman, Muammar Gaddafi, had threatened to eradicate an opposition stronghold in the east of the country. France’s aircraft carrier and fighter jets, also operating from bases in the south of France, played a key role in enforcing a no-fly zone over the country and destroying regime assets from the air, enabling the rebels to topple Gaddafi seven months later.

Earlier this year, France unilaterally intervened in its former African colony Mali when Islamist rebels there seemed likely to take the capital city of Bamako. A joint French-Malian offensive, including some 4,000 French troops, pushed the insurgents back into the Saharan desert wastes in the north of the country where some remain in hiding.