PARIS (AP) — The French military is ready to commit forces to an operation in Syria if President Francois Hollande decides to do so, the defense minister said Thursday. But the chief of state, who met with the head of the Syrian opposition, stopped short of announcing military intervention over a suspected chemical weapons attack.
Hollande offered his political and humanitarian support for the Western-backed Syrian National Council, but said the group will only be a viable alternative to Syrian President Bashar Assad if it has military credibility — and if the international community can stop the spiral of violence.
The United States, France and Britain are believed to be preparing possible military action against Assad's regime after an apparent poison gas attack in Syria on Aug. 21. U.N. experts are currently in Syria investigating the attack.
"The Armed Forces are in a position to respond to the requests and the decisions of the president once he reaches that point" of committing French forces to an international intervention in Syria, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch any military action that lasts less than four months.
Hollande, who has spoken out strongly against Assad's government, on Thursday stressed the importance of a political solution and making the Syrian opposition a stronger alternative, notably with increased firepower.
Hollande said he told Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba that "France will offer all its help. Its political help, its support, as it we have for months. But also its humanitarian, material aid."
"Everything must be done to reach a political solution, but that will not happen unless the coalition is capable of appearing as an alternative, with necessary force, notably its army," Hollande said. "We will only achieve this if the international community is capable of bringing a stop to this escalation of violence, of which the chemical massacre is just one illustration."
Hollande's comments come as his U.S. and British counterparts, Barack Obama and David Cameron, are facing resistance at home to an eventual Syrian intervention.
A French official said the aim of any French action would be to shock Assad's government into understanding that they cannot use chemical weapons. Assad blames the poison gas attack on the opposition.
The official, who spoke on condition because he was discussing sensitive military issues, said the goal was not to launch a war.
Al-Jarba, speaking alongside Hollande, said "this crime will not go unpunished."
Addressing the Syrian people, he said: "This punishment will be inflicted on this criminal, on his war machine, on those who used this weapon."
He estimated that some 1,400 people were killed and thousands wounded in the purported chemical attack Aug. 21 — a much larger number than those earlier cited. Doctors Without Borders had put the number of dead at 355 on Saturday.
French military officials would not comment on reports Thursday that a French frigate has left southern France toward Syria to take part in an eventual military operation.
France has a dozen cruise missile-capable fighter aircraft at military bases in the United Arab Emirates and the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. France's military was at the forefront of the NATO-led attacks on Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and led an intervention against extremists in Mali earlier this year.
Elaine Ganley and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris contributed to this report.