PARIS: Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad carried out a “massive” chemical attack last month, a French intelligence report said, as the Syrian leader warned military strikes against him could ignite a regional war.
Anxious to overcome widespread skepticism of military action in response to the alleged gas attack, France on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) released a nine-page report outlining its case against the regime.
Based on military and foreign intelligence services, the report said the regime launched an attack “combining conventional means with the massive use of chemical agents” on rebel-held areas around the capital Damascus on August 21.
It said that based on videos, French intelligence had counted at least 281 dead but that reports of up to 1,500 killed were consistent with such heavy use of chemical weapons.
“The attack on August 21 could only have been ordered and carried out by the regime,” the report said.
Washington and Paris are pushing for military action but are facing deep public skepticism, despite the deaths of more than 110,000 people since an uprising against Syria’s regime began in March 2011.
United States President Barack Obama shocked Washington and the world on Saturday when he decided to seek support for military action in Syria from the US Congress, when it seemed US cruise missile strikes on Assad’s forces and assets were imminent.
Hawkish senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham appeared to offer qualified backing for Obama’s plans.
“A vote against that resolution by Congress I think would be catastrophic,” said McCain.
“It would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States. None of us want that,” he added.
Obama has stressed that any US action, expected to include cruise missile attacks, would be “limited” and “narrow.”
But Assad, in a rare interview with Western media, warned that Western military strikes risked setting off a wider conflict in the Middle East.
“We cannot only talk about a Syrian response, but what could happen after the first strike,” Assad said.
“Everyone will lose control of the situation once the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. There is a risk of regional war.”
He said France should consider the consequences of taking part in military action.
“There will be repercussions, negative ones of course, on the interests of France,” Assad said.
France has emerged as the main US ally in the Syria crisis after the British parliament rejected involvement in any military action.
Britain’s government said on Monday it had “no plans” to hold a second parliamentary vote on the issue.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault presented the intelligence report to top lawmakers, ahead of a parliamentary debate on the Syria crisis on Wednesday.
The French president can order military action without parliamentary approval but some lawmakers have urged President Francois Hollande to put the issue to a vote, as Obama is doing in the United States.