France to push Russia on Syria sanctions, expels envoy
PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday he would try to convince Russia's Vladimir Putin to back Security Council sanctions against Syria, and said military action could be possible but only if it was backed by a U.N. resolution.
France joined the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy and Spain in expelling heads of Syrian diplomatic missions in a coordinated move in response to last week's killing of at least 108 people in the town of Houla.
The crisis in Syria is one of the first diplomatic tests for Hollande after predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's high-profile role in last year's crises in Libya and Ivory Coast. Hollande will meet Putin in Paris on Friday.
"It is not possible to allow Bashar al-Assad's regime to massacre its own people," Hollande told France 2 television, referring to Syria's president.
"Military intervention is not excluded provided it is carried out under the auspices of international law, namely via a (U.N.) Security Council resolution."
Hollande said Moscow and Beijing were the main obstacle to the adoption of stronger sanctions against Assad's government.
"It is down to myself and others to convince Russia and China, and also to find a solution which is not necessarily a military one," said Hollande. "We should find another solution."
Under Sarkozy, France called repeatedly for Assad to step aside and urged a U.N. resolution that could include the threat of military force unless Damascus complied with a U.N.-Arab league peace plan.
Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed Syria on Monday, condemning the Houla killings. They agreed to work together to raise pressure on Damascus.
"We are putting pressure on Syria given what its leader is doing to crush his people. Sadly, we saw a most terrible demonstration of this (in Houla) with children losing their lives in atrocious conditions," Hollande said. "We had to react."
Western and Arab states have been struggling to craft a more muscular international response to the crisis amid opposition from Russia and China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, who have already vetoed two resolutions.
Hollande said he still supported a peace plan led by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan. But he also said France would stage a meeting in Paris by early July of the Friends of Syria - a coalition of countries that want Assad's rule to end.
The meeting aims to propose concrete solutions to the Syria crisis, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
Speaking in daily newspaper Le Monde, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius ruled out a ground intervention but, when asked by reporters if an aerial intervention was a possibility, he declined to comment.
Sarkozy spearheaded a Franco-British move in NATO to back the revolt against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year. In the military operation, which had a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, NATO conducted air strikes, enforced a no-fly zone and maintained an arms embargo with naval patrols.