Obama call averted French strike by hours: report

Syria's use of chemical weapons against rebels in a Damascus suburb sparked global outrage. An opposition fighter takes cover in Telata, Idlib province. Photo/ AP
Syria's use of chemical weapons against rebels in a Damascus suburb sparked global outrage. An opposition fighter takes cover in Telata, Idlib province. Photo/ AP

French President Francois Hollande called off military strikes against Syria on August 31 following a phone call from the US President only hours before fighter jets were set to take off, a French weekly magazine has revealed.

The report in the Nouvel Observateur shows how close the West came to launching a war on Syria over the Syrian regime's presumed use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, before Washington backed down.

President Barack Obama announced in a televised speech on August 31, after informing a "stunned" Hollande, that he would seek a Congressional vote, effectively lifting the military threat.

Rafale aircraft were readied that Saturday for take-off, according to the Nouvel Observateur.

"Everything made us think that D-Day had arrived," a French official is quoted as saying.

The magazine said that "this incredible misunderstanding lasted until the end of the afternoon," at 6.15pm local time, when Obama telephoned Hollande. The strikes had been intended to start at 3am local time, targeting missile batteries and command centres of the 4th Armoured Division in charge of chemical weapons.

But instead of confirming that the US and French military would intervene jointly, Obama changed his mind following a conversation with his chief of staff Denis McDonough.

The French Defence Ministry had no comment on the Nouvel Observateur report yesterday. But it was clear that the French military establishment was stung by the US leader's behaviour. The former head of the French military academy, General Vincent Desportes, told Le Monde on September 2 that "President Obama's U-turn reflects a great contempt by the United States for France."

Inspectors who will oversee Syria's destruction of its chemical weapons said yesterday that their first priority was to help the country scrap its ability to manufacture such arms by a November 1 deadline using every means.

They said that may include smashing mixing equipment with sledgehammers, blowing up delivery missiles, driving tanks over empty shells or filling them with concrete, and running machines without lubricant so they seize up and become inoperable.

On Saturday, the UN Security Council ordered the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to help Syria destroy its chemical weapons by mid-2014.

Yesterday, inspectors in The Hague explained their current plan, which is to include an initial group of 20 leaving for Syria today.

The US and Russia agree that Syria has roughly 1000 tonnes of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents such as sulphur and mustard gas, and nerve agents like sarin. External experts say they are distributed over 50 to 70 sites.

Timothee Germain, a researcher at the Centre for International Security and Arms Control in Paris, who is not involved with the OPCW project, said he is skeptical the current timeline can be achieved. "From a technical standpoint, it's really a long-shot."

- Independent, AP

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