PARIS — France’s foreign minister on Thursday raised the possibility of the international community using force in Syria if it is proven that Bashir Assad’s regime used chemical weapons in an attack the opposition says killed more than 100 people.
Laurent Fabius spoke a day after the U.N. Security Council called for “a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” of the latest allegations against the regime, in a statement that diplomats say was watered down by objections from Syria allies Russia and China.
Opposition forces and activists have said that at least 136 people, including many children, were killed in the Wednesday attack in which most bodies bore no sign of wounds. The U.S., Britain, France and others have demanded that a team of U.N. experts already in Syria be granted immediate access to investigate the site.
French President Francois Hollande spoke Thursday by phone with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and expressed France’s support for a quick investigation into the “likely use of chemical weapons,” the French leader’s office said in a statement, without elaborating.
Speaking on RMC radio, Fabius didn’t make clear how the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime might be proven. But if there is proof of a chemical weapons attack by the regime, “we need a reaction by the international community …. a reaction of force,” he said.
Fabius excluded boots on the ground as an option, “but a reaction that can take a form, I don’t want to be more precise, of force.”
France has been at the forefront of efforts to rid Syria of Assad. It was the first to back the opposition Syrian National Coalition and appoint a coalition ambassador in Paris. With Britain, it pressed for the lifting of European arms sanctions, though once they were lifted pulled back and said it is supplying non-lethal military equipment plus humanitarian aid.
Fabius said he spoke at length with the head of the coalition chief, Ahmad al-Jarba, who “confirmed absolutely” that the regime was behind the chemical attack. The Syrian government has adamantly denied using chemical weapons in an artillery barrage targeting suburbs east of Damascus.
The attack coincided with the visit to Syria by a 20-member U.N. chemical weapons team, which only has a mandate to investigate three previous allegations of chemical weapons use. Without a mandate, which needs Syria’s approval, the investigators wouldn’t be able to visit the site of the attack.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich reiterated his claims that the accusations against Assad could be a bid to get the Security Council to stand by the opposition, and to undermine efforts to resolve the conflict by convening a peace conference in Geneva.
“This all smacks of an attempt, at any cost, to establish grounds for forwarding the demands of the enemies of the regime” to the Security Council, he said, pointing to the timing of “this crime near Damascus” and the arrival of the U.N. team as evidence of “premeditated provocation”