French intelligence report builds case for Syria action
PARIS — France ramped up its efforts Monday to build support for military action in Syria by releasing an intelligence report that found last month’s chemical attack near Damascus “could only have been ordered and carried out by the regime.”
The nine-page declassified report, which the government uploaded onto its website, accused President Bashar Assad’s regime of “massive and coordinated” use of chemical agents on Aug. 21.
Expert analysis of 47 videos of the attack had shown “at least 281 deaths” but modeling of the impact of chemical attacks showed the total figure was probably far higher, the report said. The document drew a line between last month’s attack and two smaller attacks using sarin gas in April to build a case against Assad.
France has said it is willing to join a U.S.-led coalition that would “punish” the regime for its suspected involvement in the attack.
U.S. President Barack Obama has put off any intervention until Congress, which is in recess until Sept. 9, has a chance to vote on the matter.
Two leading U.S. senators — John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans — said they supported a reaction that both degrades the Syrian regime and upgrades rebel forces.
McCain and Graham said that a vote against intervention would be “catastrophic” and would leave the credibility of the U.S. “shredded.”
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also backed military action, saying he was “personally convinced” that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical attack.
But Assad again rejected the allegations.
The Syrian army had nothing to gain from using weapons of mass destruction in an area where its troops were present, he told France’s Le Figaro newspaper, demanding: “Where’s the logic?”
The Syrian leader warned of consequences “for French interests” and regional security in the event of an intervention.
“Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread,” he said.
The threat came as Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met with parliamentary leaders to present them with the intelligence findings ahead of a parliamentary debate on Syria on Wednesday.
The opposition has been pressuring the government to follow the example of Britain and the U.S. in putting military action to a vote.
The British parliament has already voted against military involvement.
Ayrault ruled out a vote, which is not required under France’s constitution, saying that “the final decision, when a coalition is put together, can only be taken by the president.”
Polls in the U.S. and France show little public support for a campaign of missile strikes that Western leaders say would aim to punish Assad without going so far as to topple him.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she still hoped the United Nations could agree on a position, despite veto holders Russia and China repeatedly blocking action against Assad.
The decision by Obama to consult Congress created more time for diplomacy that “should be put to use,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert quoted Merkel as saying.
Israeli President Shimon Peres also welcomed Obama’s cautious approach.
“Thoughtfulness should not be confused with indecision; better to analyze before the event rather than after it,” he said. “I have faith in him when it comes to all issues regarding Israel.”
His Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, said he opposed an attack on sovereignty grounds.
While Syria was in a “very dangerous” situation, the Palestinian Authority did “not want any Arab country to come under attack from outside,” he said.
Russia also continued to express skepticism, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying evidence presented by the United States, Britain and France was unconvincing.
Lavrov added that when Moscow asked for more details, it was being told that they are secret.
“That means that there are no facts on which to base international cooperation,” he said, warning a Western intervention would delay progress towards a political solution.
Meanwhile, as the prospect of immediate military action receded, thousands of Syrians who fled to Lebanon over the weekend started to return to Damascus.
“Of the 15,000 (Syrians) who entered Lebanon last week, some 4,000 have returned in the past 24 hours,” a border guard at the Masnaa-Jdeida crossing on the Beirut-Damascus highway said.