• Map of Syrian air defences leaked to US media last year (Photo: James L'Angelle)

France says Syria air strikes a possibility

30.05.12 @ 09:21

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - French leader Francois Hollande has said military action in Syria is possible if the UN agrees, as EU countries expelled ambassadors.

He spoke on national TV on Tuesday (29 May) following UN confirmation that Syrian artillery and militia killed 108 people, including 49 children, in the village of Houla, in western Syria, on Friday.

"I heard Bernard Henry-Levy talk about a military intervention, which is not excluded provided it is carried out under the auspices of international law, namely via a [UN] Security Council resolution," Hollande said, referring to a French intellectual who also advocated air strikes on Libya last year.

Hollande's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, in an interview with the Le Monde newspaper the same day indicated that air strikes are the only option.

"No country is ready to envisage a ground operation," he said.

Fabius noted that Syria has a "strong" army. But the French military does not see any technical barriers.

Former French air force chief Jean Rannou told EUobserver in an interview last year: "I don't see any purely military problems. Syria has no defence against Western systems ... [But] it would be more risky than Libya."

Military analysts say Nato jets would use a British base in Cyprus to launch sorties against Syrian air-defences over the first 48 hours, followed by open-ended bombardment.

Syria has around 430 planes, but out of these just 60-or-so Russian-made MiG-29s are up to date. It also has Russian-made surface-to-air missiles - SA-17s - which might inflict casualties.

Hollande's statement is more hawkish than previous ones by EU countries, which went no further than saying international troops might guard humanitarian safe zones. But with China and Russia continuing to veto UN-level action, his statement is largely rhetorical.

One EU diplomat told this website on Tuesday that the UN veto is useful cover for Nato countries, including Turkey, many of which are unwilling to go to war or unsure how to handle Syria.

"It's interesting to see what would happen if China and Russia actually said: 'OK. Do what you want'," the contact noted.

Meanwhile, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK also on Tuesday expelled Syrian charges d'affaires and ambassadors in protest over Houla.

Belgium said three people - including the ambassador - have been declared persona non grata. The ambassador will stay around anyway because he is also accredited to the European External Action Service (EEAS).

An EU spokeswoman said there is no plan to cut him off, in line with EEAS policy of also keeping open its embassy in Damascus to keep information flowing.