BERLIN — French leaders warned Wednesday that failing to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would send a dangerous signal to the dictators of the world.
But French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also said that his country would not launch a retaliatory strike on Syria if the United States decides not to do so.
“France will not act without U.S. support,” he told his country’s Senate as France’s Parliament began to debate whether the country should take military action to punish the government of President Bashar Assad for a chemical weapons attack that the U.S. and France claim his forces launched on Damascus suburbs Aug. 21.
“The question is, shall we take action, or resign?” Ayrault asked. “Can we allow ourselves to just condemn his actions?”
The warning came as the U.S. Congress undertook its second day of hearings leading up to a likely vote next week on whether to authorize a U.S. attack on Syria and six days after the British Parliament rejected British participation in any military action.
Just hours before the French discussion of a response began, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s consistently rejected the notion that Assad’s government used chemical weapons, seemed to open the door for possible Russian participation in a strike, telling a television interviewer that “if it is proven the government was behind the attacks, there will be a reaction.”
But he added that such proof would have to come from the United Nations inspection team that visited the site of the alleged attack, whose samples collected there and from victims in the hospital are being studied in laboratories around Europe, including one in Germany. The samples are expected to be analyzed by next week.
The analysis, however, will determine only whether chemical weapons were used and, if so, which kind. Determining who was behind the attacks then would fall to the United Nations Security Council.
Putin said that if such proof were provided, the Security Council would have to decide to act before any action would be legitimate.
“But once we have a decision from the United Nations, we could respond by any means necessary,” he said.
Putin, whose government has been – with Iran – the most aggressive defender of Assad, said he expected similar open-mindedness from U.S. officials.
“My question is what will be the U.S. reaction if the evidence shows that the rebels were behind the use of chemical weapons?” he asked. “Will the U.S. stop providing the rebellion with weapons in that case?”
While the Obama administration has promised to provide weapons to the rebels, it’s unclear whether it’s done so.
In France, lawmakers returned from vacation early to discuss the Syrian crisis.
Ayrault’s arguments to the French Senate tracked those that Secretary of State John Kerry had made Tuesday to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“What credibility would our international commitments against nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, stand for?” Ayrault said. “What message would this send to other regimes, and I am thinking, like you, of Iran and North Korea? The message would be clear: ‘You can continue.’ ”
French President Francois Hollande warned that a lack of action would “encourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and leave Syria and the region to fall into chaos."
The leader of the primary opposition party in the French Senate warned, however, that any action without a United Nations mandate carried the risk of isolating France. Christian Jacob, the head of the center-right Union for Popular Movement, the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, warned of “similarities with Iraq” in the run-up to any Syrian attack, saying there was no U.N. consensus and that the intelligence on which the U.S. and France have made their case is less than definitive.
“Where are our allies?” he asked. “Where is the United Nations Security Council resolution?”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.