PARIS (AP) — France's prime minister says there's no doubt that the Syrian government carried out a deadly chemical attack against civilians — and that a failure to react would allow President Bashar Assad to launch a similar attack again.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault addressed parliament Wednesday during a debate to rally support for a military strike again Syria. The U.S. and France accuse Assad's Syrian government of using chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds.
Ayrault said the attack killed nearly 1,500 people — a higher figure than the French government has used before.
He is in the delicate position of trying to shore up support amid deep skepticism in France while also waiting to see if the U.S. Congress authorizes military action next week.
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France's government offers a preview Wednesday of what the Obama administration faces next week, as lawmakers debate the wisdom and necessity of a military response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed hundreds.
Shoring up support for a military response, French officials said a punitive military response would help shift the balance in a 2 ½-year-old civil war that was tipping in favor of Bashar Assad.
"If you want a political solution you have to move the situation. If there's no sanction, Bashar Assad will say 'that's fine, I'll continue what I'm doing,'" France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told France Info radio Wednesday morning, hours ahead of the debate.
As the Obama administration worked to build its own support ahead of the Congress vote, the U.S. and Israel conducted a joint missile test Tuesday in the eastern Mediterranean in an apparent signal of military readiness. In the operation, a missile was fired from the sea toward the Israeli coast to test the tracking by the country's missile defense system.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of Assad's most vocal supporters, warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria, although he told The Associated Press that Russia had frozen new shipments to Syria of an air defense missile system.
There's a major difference between the French debate and the one coming up on Capitol Hill: President Francois Hollande has an easy majority in the French parliament, and he neither needs nor — unlike President Barack Obama — wants their vote of approval. But with the prospect of military action against Assad facing dwindling support internationally, the government has been building its case.
The U.S. and France accuse the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds of people. Obama and Hollande are pushing for a military response to punish Assad for his alleged use of poison gas against civilians — though U.S. officials say any action will be limited in scope, not aimed at helping to remove Assad.
Putin said Russia "doesn't exclude" supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people, but he questioned the proofs released by Britain, the United States and France as part of their efforts to build international support.
Any proof needs to go before the Security Council, Putin told The Associated Press. "And it ought to be convincing. It shouldn't be based on some rumors and information obtained by special services through some kind of eavesdropping, some conversations and things like that."
Fabius, the French foreign minister, said Syria would certainly come up at this week's G-20 meeting in Russia.
"We will discuss with the Russians, because they are an important player in the region. Up until now they've been blocking things. If there's been an evolution that would be very desirable," Fabius said.
On Tuesday, the White House won backing for military action from two powerful Republicans — House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor.
In Syria, Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the country's ruling Baath party, slammed U.S. senators and members of the Congress for their support.
An editorial in the paper's Wednesday edition branded the American lawmakers who backed military action in Syria as "advocates of war and terrorism."
"When the Obama administration seeks a broader mandate from the Congress, which it basically in no need of, this means that it prepares itself for what is bigger and more dangerous," the paper said.
In Paris, Hollande said that the U.S. vote "will have consequences on the coalition that we will have to create." He did not specify whether that meant a military coalition.
Fabius on Wednesday acknowledged the U.S. vote was crucial.
"If the United States backed off — which I don't plan on, but anything can happen — this type of action wouldn't be possible and so we would have to consider the Syrian question in another way," he said.
Syria's parliament speaker sent a letter to his counterparts in France ahead of Wednesday's debate, urging them not to make any "hasty" decisions. The office of Assembly President Claude Bartolone confirmed receipt of the letter and promised a public response later Wednesday.
The Syrian lawmakers sent a similar letter to Britain ahead of a parliamentary vote there that came down against military action.
Since the outbreak of the Syria conflict in March 2011, the two sides have fought to a stalemate, though the Assad regime has retaken the offensive in recent months. Rebel fighters control large rural stretches in northern and eastern Syria, while Assad is holding on to most of the main urban areas.
French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said punitive action in Syria would "re-balance" the situation on the ground.
The Syrian conflict, which began as a popular uprising against Assad in March 2011, later degenerated into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that the number of Syrians who have fled the country has surpassed the 2 million mark.
Along with more than four million people displaced inside Syria, this means more than six million Syrians have been uprooted, out of an estimated population of 23 million.
Antonio Guterres, the head of the Office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Syria is hemorrhaging an average of almost 5,000 citizens a day across its borders, many of them with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Nearly 1.8 million refugees have fled in the past 12 months alone, he said.
The agency's special envoy, actress Angelina Jolie, said "some neighboring countries could be brought to the point of collapse" if the situation keeps deteriorating at its current pace. Most Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Beirut, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, Lori Hinnant, Sylvie Corbet and Jamey Keaten in Paris, John Danisziewski, Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.