WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday he discussed with France its possible involvement in the U.S.-led campaign in Syria but his French counterpart would not be drawn on whether Paris might join in airstrikes.
France was the first country to join the U.S.-led coalition in airstrikes on Islamic State insurgents in Iraq, who have also taken control of large parts of neighboring Syria during the course of the three-year-old civil war there.
However, France has raised concerns that airstrikes in Syria could leave a void that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces may fill and has called for a concerted effort to reinforce and train moderate anti-Assad rebels on the ground.
“Yes, we did discuss possibilities of France’s involvement in Syria,” Hagel told reporters at a Pentagon news conference following the talks, without elaborating.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian did not acknowledge discussions about French participation in Syria at the news conference.
After the news conference, he suggested to a smaller group of reporters that Hagel had made no request of France on Syria. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to Reuters no specific request was made during the closed-door discussions at the Pentagon.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France’s policy of not intervening in Syria could evolve over time but that there was no plans to do so for now.
France, which has provided limited weapons to Syrian rebels, has repeatedly said it will strengthen the moderate opposition to fight Assad and Islamic State fighters, whose main power base is in rebel-controlled eastern and northern Syria.
France is also ramping up its role in the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq. France announced on Wednesday it would send three Rafale fighter jets and an anti-aircraft warship to the Gulf to support Iraqi government forces against Islamic State.
France currently has six fighter jets, an Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft and a refueling plane at its base in the United Arab Emirates as part of its “Chammal” Iraq mission.
It has carried out just two airstrikes in Iraq since launching operations in mid-September. France has also delivered 140 tonnes of military equipment to regional Kurdish peshmerga forces confronting Islamic State in the north of Iraq, as well as provided training for them.
“We are the very beginning of this coalition. It has just started being formed,” Le Drian told the news briefing. “We are in a long term process.”
Additional reporting by Sandra Maler and David Alexander in Washington and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Sandra Maler