World News

Chemical weapons a red line in Syria, says France's Macron

VERSAILLES, France (Reuters) - The use of chemical weapons in Syria is a red line for France and would result in reprisals, President Emmanuel Macron said after meeting his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday.

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) give a joint press conference at the Chateau de Versailles before the opening of an exhibition marking 300 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries in Versailles, France, May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Meeting Putin for the first time, Macron told a news conference that France and Russia must cooperate to “eradicate terrorist groups” in Syria and did not directly criticise Moscow’s role there.

France and Russia back different sides in the Syrian conflict, with Putin supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Macron part of a western coalition that supports rebel groups and has accused Assad of using chemical weapons in the past.

Macron said it was essential to talk with all actors in the Syria conflict, including representatives of Assad.

“Our two countries will cooperate on Syria, this is essential,” Macron said. “We need strong cooperation because we have a joint priority, which is the fight against terrorism.”

Macron said he wanted Paris and Moscow to bolster intelligence sharing on Syria and to work together on finding a political solution to the conflict, but gave no details on what a political deal might look like.

Sounding less forthcoming, Putin said he wasn’t sure if France’s Syria policy was “independent” because it was part of a U.S-lead alliance, adding that Paris and Moscow had points of disagreement and agreement over Syria.

Putin said he and Macron had agreed the fight against terrorism was their top priority, but stressed that he hadn’t changed his views on Syria and told Macron so.

Macron’s warning of French retaliation in the event chemical weapons are used echo the line taken by U.S. President Donald Trump, who in April ordered cruise missile strikes in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack that Washington blamed on Damascus.

“Any use of chemical weapons would results in reprisals and an immediate riposte, at least where France is concerned,” Macron said, standing next to Putin in the Versailles palace outside of Paris.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama put himself in a tough spot with his “red line” ultimatum to Syria on the use of chemical weapons, a phrase he first used in August 2012. But he backtracked in the face of congressional opposition.

In April, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Vladimir Safronkov, told the U.N. Security Council that Obama’s threat of military action if a “red line” was crossed had provoked such attacks.

Syria agreed in September 2013 to destroy its chemical weapons programme under a deal negotiated with the United States and Russia after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin gas attack in the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.

But French intelligence concluded that forces loyal to Assad carried out a sarin nerve gas attack in April this year in northern Syria and that Assad or members of his inner circle ordered the strike, a declassified French report showed.

Assad has denied his government used chemical weapons.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Additional reporting by Denis Dyomkin; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Lough