France Postpones Syria Action, “Cannot Go It Alone”

President Barack Obama’s request for congressional approval has created “a new situation” for France.

French interior minister Manuel Valls delivers a speech, November 9, 2010
French interior minister Manuel Valls delivers a speech, November 9, 2010 (Parti socialiste/Philippe Grangeaud)

French interior minister Manuel Valls said on Sunday that his country will wait for the United States Congress to decide whether to initiate airstrikes against Syria. “France cannot go it alone,” he told Europe 1 radio. “We need a coalition.”

France has been among the most vocal of countries urging intervention in the country it ruled between the First and Second World Wars. After an alleged chemical weapons attack against civilians in a suburb of the country’s capital Damascus last week, President François Hollande vowed that those responsible would be punished, invoking the world’s “responsibility to protect” civilians in a civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since it began more than two years ago.

France intervened unilaterally in its former African colony Mali this year to halt a rebel offensive on the capital city Bamako but lacks the military capacity to do more than launch airstrikes against Syria on its own.

While American president Barack Obama seems intent on doing no more than undertake a punitive expedition against Syria to deter it from deploying chemical weapons again, his surprise announcement on Saturday that he will ask Congress’ approval for a strike mission created “a new situation,” said Valls, which means France has to wait “for the end of this new phase.”

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is to discuss with senior lawmakers on Monday how to proceed in Syria.

Four American navy ships, capable of launching cruise missiles against Syrian regime targets, are deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean with a fifth to join them soon. France’s anti-aircraft frigate Chevalier Paul left port on Thursday to set sail for the same area. Its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier was still at Toulon.

Although newspaper coverage of Hollande’s response to the alleged gas attack was overwhelmingly positive, the French public seems to have grown more skeptical of intervention. Whereas 58 percent said they favored military action against Syria in an Ifop poll two months ago, a BVA survey released on Saturday showed 64 percent opposed.