France's Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault delivers a speech at the National Assembly in Paris on Sept. 4. (Christophe Ena / AP)
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PARIS — France’s prime minister made a passionate appeal Wednesday for intervention in Syria, placing the blame for a chemical attack on Syrian President Bashar Assad and warning that inaction could let him carry out more atrocities.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault addressed the French National Assembly at the beginning of a debate on the wisdom of a French military response. Wednesday’s debate will end without a vote — since President Francois Hollande can order a military operation without one — but it was part of his government’s delicate dance to rev up support at home for an unpopular intervention.
The French debate also offered a preview of the challenges the Obama administration faces when the U.S. Congress debates Syria next week.
The U.S. and France accuse Assad’s 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 — although U.S. officials say any action will be limited in scope and not aimed at helping to remove Assad.
The French government is in a particularly difficult situation, with many opposition party members claiming that the Socialist Hollande is merely acting as a lapdog for the U.S., the only other major power considering a Syrian military intervention. In what a possible sign of budding support for an intervention, officials from countries neighboring Syria who met Wednesday in Geneva did not express explicit opposition to any military action.
Ayrault was careful to say that his certainty about the facts of the attack comes from French sources. But he mentioned for the first time a death toll of nearly 1,500 — which is around what the Americans have cited.
“The Syrian regime carries the entire responsibility” for the attack, said Ayrault. “Not to react would be to send a terrible message to Bashar Assad and to the Syrian people: Chemical weapons can used tomorrow again, against Damascus, against Aleppo, maybe even in a bigger way.”
Ayrault said a punitive military response would help shift the balance in a 2 ˝year-old civil war — which was tipping in favor of Assad — and was the only way to convince the Syrian leader that he must go to the negotiating table.
Many in the opposition have called for a vote in the French parliament, even though Hollande’s administration could win one since his party holds a comfortable majority.
Conservative French lawmakers have also said an attack without a U.N. resolution is risky, evoking the Iraq war when France pointedly refused to join the U.S.-led invasion without Security Council support. During Wednesday’s debate, Christian Jacob, president of the right-leaning UMP party, criticized Hollande for ceding France’s independence to the Americans.
He said France’s guiding principle should be: “always allied with the United States, never falling into line.”
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s most vocal supporters, warned the West against taking any one-sided action in Syria.
In an interview late Tuesday, Putin told The Associated Press that Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes against Syria if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people. Still he questioned the proof released by Britain, the United States and France as part of their efforts to build international support for a military strike.
Any proof needs to go before the U.N. Security Council, Putin told the AP. “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.”
He did say, however, that Russia had frozen new shipments to Syria of a missile defense system.
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, the Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the country’s ruling Baath party, branded American lawmakers who backed military action against Syria as “advocates of war and terrorism.”
“When the Obama administration seeks a broader mandate from Congress, which it basically does not need, this means that it prepares itself for what is bigger and more dangerous,” the paper said in an editorial Wednesday.
In Paris, Hollande said 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.
Syria’s parliament speaker sent a letter to his French counterpart ahead of Wednesday’s debate, urging lawmakers not to make any “hasty” decisions. Syrian lawmakers sent a similar letter to Britain ahead of a parliamentary vote there that rejected military action against Syria.
The Syrian conflict, which began as a popular uprising against Assad in March 2011, has degenerated into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people. The two sides have fought to a stalemate, although 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.
The war has sent millions of Syrians fleeing into neighboring countries, and officials from those countries appealed for international help Wednesday, saying they are struggling to keep up. When asked, none of the officials — from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey — said they were opposed to a strike.
“If this crime will not be responded to appropriately, and those who committed this crime are not held accountable ... more crimes will be coming,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. “Therefore it is difficult to answer a question about a military intervention or strike. What should be done is a proper response by the international community to this criminal act.”
The U.N. refugee agency says over 2 million Syrians have fled the country. With more than 4 million people displaced inside Syria, that means over 6 million Syrians have been uprooted out of the country’s estimated 23 million people.
Aji reported from Damascus. 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, John Heilprin in Geneva and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.