France waits on US vote

BEIRUT (AP) — France will not carry out punitive missile strikes against Syria on its own and is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Congress on possible military action against Bashar Assad’s regime, the French president said Tuesday.

President Barack Obama and his French counterpart, Francois 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.

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.

“A large coalition must therefore be created on the international scale, with the United States — which will soon take its decision — (and) with Europe ... and Arab countries,” Hollande said.

If Congress votes no, France “will take up its responsibilities by supporting the democratic opposition (in Syria) in such a way that a response is provided,” he added.

France’s government on Monday released an extract of intelligence gathered by two leading French intelligence agencies alleging that Assad’s regime was behind the attack and at least two other, smaller-scale ones earlier this year.

Hollande added Tuesday that France had indications the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, a claim U.S. officials have also made.

The French parliament will debate the Syria issue Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled. France’s constitution doesn’t require such a vote for military intervention unless its lasts longer than four months, though some French lawmakers have urged Hollande to call one anyway.

The U.S. and France say the alleged chemical attack violates international conventions. Russia, which with Iran has been a staunch backer of Assad throughout the conflict, has brushed aside Western evidence of an alleged Syrian regime role.

Meanwhile in Syria, regime troops recaptured the town of Ariha, a busy commercial center in the restive northern province of Idlib following days of heavy bombardment, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Ariha has changed hands several times in the past two years. Rebels had succeeded in wrestling it from government control late last month.

The U.N. refugee agency announced 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.

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