NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (Reuters) - France said on Friday it had been informed by the United States before the U.S. military strikes on Syrian military positions and that Russia should use this “warning” to push for a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
France, a key backer of rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, has repeatedly called on him to step down and this week said a suspected chemical attack by Assad’s forces was a test for U.S. President Donald Trump.
“The United States has started clarifying its position because over the last few days we heard one thing and then another,” Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told Reuters and France Info radio in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, where he was on a diplomatic visit.
“Here, we have an action that is a sort of condemnation, through military strikes on a military base, of what this criminal regime is doing.”
In Paris, President Francois Hollande confirmed French backing for the U.S. action, saying France had been seeking U.S. missile strikes in 2013 after a previous chemical attack.
Assad bore “full responsibility for this development,” Hollande said in a joint statement with Germany from the Elysee after speaking with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He said France and Germany would continue efforts through the United Nations to achieve the best response to chemical attacks.
The U.S. missile strikes came in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town in northern Syria earlier this week which killed at least 70 people.
Ayrault, who was informed ahead of the strikes by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said he did not believe Washington wanted to continue its strikes and that the escalation of the U.S. military role in Syria, in which two U.S. warships fired dozens of cruise missiles at an Assad-controlled airbase, was a “warning.”
France, a NATO ally, has been a vocal critic of Washington’s policy in Syria since the previous administration of Barack Obama pulled back from launching strikes against Assad following the 2013 chemical attack that killed hundreds of people.
French planes had been minutes away from taking off when Obama backed down.
“A signal was sent, because yet again a red line was crossed by Assad,” Ayrault said.
“The use of chemical weapons is appalling and should be punished because it is a war crime,” Ayrault said.
He said Paris’s only military role in Syria at present was its part in the coalition fighting Islamic State and that it had no intention of entering the conflict between Assad and rebels.
The conflict is now in its seventh year and has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.
“We are not seeking any confrontation, but Russia and Iran must understand that backing the Assad regime makes no sense,” he said, urging Moscow to now fully back a UN Security Council resolution that sets out the path for a transition to peace in the country.
“Peace negotiations (are going on) for a political transition, to rebuild the country and enable the return of refugees and that will not happen with Bashar al-Assad,” he said.
“I will tell the Russians: ‘Stop playing. Stop hesitating and pretending. Play your role and implement resolution 2254’(the UN resolution that sets out a roadmap for peace talks)”.
Reporting by John Irish; Writing by Andrew Callus; Editing by Richard Balmforth