PARIS French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that Syria needed a political solution, but that could only happen if the international community could halt killings like last week's chemical attack and better support the opposition.
Hollande sounded a more cautious note than earlier in the week, when he said France stood ready to punish those behind the apparent poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in Damascus.
He indicated that France was looking to Gulf Arab countries to step up their military support to the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, after Paris said this week it would do so.
"Everything must be done for a political solution but it will only happen if the coalition is able to appear as an alternative with the necessary force, notably from its army," Hollande told reporters after meeting the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Jarba.
"We will only manage this if the international community can put a temporary stop to this escalation in violence, of which the chemical attack is just one example," Hollande said.
France took no part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which it strongly opposed, but joined Britain, the United States and others in military intervention that helped oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Hollande sent troops to the west African nation of Mali this year to drive out Islamist rebels.
French diplomatic sources said Hollande spoke with Jarba about providing more military means, after Jarba told the daily Le Parisien the opposition needed much more help from outside.
Jarba also urged Western powers to carry out a swift retaliatory strike against Assad, whom they hold responsible for the use of chemical weapons. The Syrian government denies it.
"France will give all its aid - political, but also humanitarian and material, and we will use all the influence we have in the Gulf Arab countries so that this can be organized," Hollande told reporters.
President Barack Obama has made a case for a limited military strike against Syria in response to the alleged chemical attack, but any action could be slowed by the presence of U.N. weapons inspectors near Damascus and the need to ease divisions in Britain and among U.S. lawmakers.
Britain wants the U.N. Security Council to see the weapons inspectors' findings before any strike is launched, and its parliament is to hold two votes before any such action is taken.
"Assad's regime has complete support from Russia, Hezbollah and Iran. We have nothing. Our allies have given us none of what we have asked for. We need real support," Jarba told Le Parisien.
"If Western states, which profess democratic and humanist values, stay quiet, Assad will deduce that there is no obstacle to him carrying out crimes. Our people risk being exterminated."
A French warship, the Chevalier Paul, has left its dock at the Mediterranean port of Toulon, shipping authorities told Reuters, though they declined to confirm a media report that the frigate was headed to Syria. Military sources said France's Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier was still docked in Toulon.
(Reporting by John Irish and Catherine Bremer; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)