PARIS (Reuters) - France will not carry out military action against Islamic State militants in Syria, but will soon begin air strikes to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq, President Francois Hollande said on Thursday.
“I have decided to respond positively to the Iraqi authorities to provide air support,” Hollande told a news conference. “We will not go beyond that. There will not be ground troops and we will only intervene in Iraq.”
France has previously signaled it would carry out air strikes in Iraq and send special forces to the country to help direct them and to train armed forces. It is already providing arms to the Kurdish forces in the north of the country.
French fighter jets and surveillance aircraft began reconnaissance missions in Iraq on Monday.
Asked when French air strikes would begin, Hollande said: “As soon as we have identified targets, that means in a short time frame.” He added: “It will be air support to protect Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to reduce and weaken this terrorist group.”
Hollande said Paris had not been asked to take part in strikes in neighboring Syria, where Islamic State has its power base. He cited legal and military difficulties and said Paris feared strikes against Islamic State targets there would benefit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
France’s has been a staunch opponent of Assad, was the first to back the Syrian opposition and has been the only Western nation to admit publicly to arming rebels on the ground.
It has said it will strengthen its support for “moderates” fighting Assad and Islamic State.
“We cannot, despite the presence of this terrorist group Daech (Islamic State), carry out whatever action that would favor the regime of the dictator Bashar al-Assad,” Hollande said.
“We are also attentive to aspects of international law. In Iraq we were called for help by the Iraqi authorities, but in Syria we are not.”
French forces are also stretched, with more than 5,000 troops in West Africa. Its annual overseas defense budget for 2014 is already almost triple what was originally planned at a time when the government is under severe pressure to cut spending.
Reporting By John Irish; editing by Crispian Balmer